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Internship shapes the future for next generation of scientists

KANNAPOLIS — In the world of academic research, the saying goes, “publish or perish.”

Through their participation in the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP), Holli Chandler and Claire Thetford had publication number one on their resume before they finished their undergraduate studies. Their work in Doctor Slavko Komarnytsky’s lab during the 11-week summer internship program directly contributed to the article “Mapping inflammation and cancer-modifying regions in broccoli genome,” published in “The FASEB Journal” in April.

Komarnytsky is an assistant professor at N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute, where he has been mentoring four to six students each summer for the past three years as part of P2EP. Several of the students he has mentored, including Chandler, Thetford and Jocsa Cortes, have gone on to professional schools or graduate programs.

Lab experience guides career path
Komarnytsky’s area of focus is metabolic biology and pharmacogenomics. His graduate student, Weston Bussler, oversees the daily activities of the interns, providing Bussler with his own valuable experience. Bussler is pursuing his PhD and will likely be managing his own lab staff one day. P2EP gives him a taste of what’s required with regard to training and supervising lab assistants — the benefits of throughput, but also the challenges that can arise.

As a 2015 summer intern, Cortes worked in the Komarnytsky lab. She studied anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties in oats and broccoli using genomic tools.

“Before P2EP, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I had no idea what I wanted to study,” Cortes said. “It was really up in the air, but my experience with P2EP gave me complete clarity, confirmed my love for research, and fueled my passion for studying plant-based nutrition.”

Following her time as an intern, Cortes joined the Komarnytsky lab as a part-time lab assistant. In the past year, she has been working with different bacterial strains, analyzing adhesion and invasion patterns, looking for pathogenicity.

Komarnytsky provides an opportunity each year for select summer interns to resume working in his lab as part-time employees in the fall.

“It’s a logical step, allowing the now well-trained students an opportunity to continue working on the projects they began in the summer, and ultimately moving the research along,” he said.

While the student lab technicians advance the project further, Komarnytsky provides guidance for them, writing recommendation letters and advising students on which schools and which programs to consider.

“They come with their own vision,” Komarnytsky says. “P2EP gives us an opportunity to interact; sometimes they challenge me, and sometimes I challenge them.”

Komarnytsky has a 100 percent research appointment with the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Science, which affords him the chance to provide these ambitious students with a launch pad as they prepare for college graduation and the transition to professional schools.

“I try to protect them from making the same mistakes I did,” he says. “It’s a mind-opening experience for both myself and the students, since I see them go through the same steps I did when I was their age.”

Next steps beyond the internship
This fall, Cortes, a graduate of UNC Charlotte, will be starting graduate school at N.C. State University in the Comparative Biomedical Sciences program with a concentration in Nutritional Immunology. Upon completion of her advanced degree, Cortes looks forward to a career in academia, but she also appreciates the opportunities she’s seen at the NCRC to work in industry as well.

“It was encouraging seeing the collaborative relationship between researchers in academia and in industry,” Cortes recalls from her summer with P2EP.

Chandler recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Catawba College and will be attending pharmacy school at Auburn University in August. Chandler participated in P2EP last summer and continued to work in the Komarnytsky lab beyond the internship experience.

“It’s this place and these people that really made my experience,” Chandler recalls about her time in the lab during P2EP. “They had my back through pharmacy school applications and graduation. This lab has truly been a blessing to me.”

A junior at N.C. State, majoring in Human Biology, Thetford has returned to P2EP for the third consecutive summer. Having two grandparents who died from colon cancer, this research has a personal connection for Thetford.

“Each year has been a different overall experience, tackling a different learning curve. I am glad to come back and continue what I started,” she said.

At last year’s summer symposium, Thetford and Chandler won the scientific poster competition, competing against 14 team efforts.

Learn more about P2EP

This year’s Summer Symposium, scheduled for July 27, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Laureate Center in Kannapolis City Hall, will include a keynote address from Dr. Rodolphe Barrangou, a pioneer in the emerging field of CRISPR technology. The intern teams will provide a five-minute summary of their research efforts as well as participate in a poster competition. Registration for the symposium is available at p2ep.org.

Located at the North Carolina Research Campus, the P2EP summer internship program accepts 25 to 30 students each year, ranging from high school to graduate-level. N.C. State University and UNC Charlotte facilitate this joint academic-industry supported program. Students receive the opportunity to work side-by-side at the lab bench with graduate mentors, experiencing the real-world research process and establishing lasting connections with research faculty at the NCRC. To learn more about this program, visit p2ep.org/.

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