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Decade-Long Partnership with Fox Chase Cancer Center Continuing to Create Connections and Opportunities for Students

Decade-Long Partnership with Fox Chase Cancer Center Continuing to Create Connections and Opportunities for Students

Jade Wilson works in the lab during her internship experience at Fox Chase Cancer Center.In 2013, Chestnut Hill College student Kelsey Haugh ‘14 received the opportunity of a lifetime, to complete an internship at the Fox Chase Cancer Center (FCCC) where she studied under Richard Katz, Ph.D., and Siddharth Balachandran, Ph.D. The internship saw Haugh spend several months researching a virology project, often including work late into the evenings. Haugh left the internship with an incredible experience, connections with highly established scientists, and a pathway to medical school. Haugh was accepted into Yale University’s Virology/Microbiology program, considered one of the best immunology departments in all of the U.S.

And it all started with FCCC.

“She did so well and was so into science, she kept coming after the summer ended,” Balachandran noted when interviewed in 2016 for the Chestnut Hill Magazine.

Haugh’s experience and the subsequent experiences of Kelly Dunleavy ‘15 and Jason Wasserman ‘16, with the program were enough to lead Joe Kulkosky, Ph.D., chair of the biology department at CHC, to further engage in discussions with Katz and Balachandran about creating a permanent partnership between CHC and FCCC. In the summer of 2015, that alliance was born as the College and FCCC began an immersive undergraduate research program offering CHC students a chance to learn all aspects of research science, acquire skills in communicating science, and the opportunity to have that research published in a peer-reviewed science journal, much like Haugh.

It is rare for undergraduates to have their work published, something that Balachandran explained sets the CHC/FCCC program apart from even some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the country. “Even at Stanford and MIT, there is no dedicated program that puts students interested in biology and puts them in the lab where the expected outcome is a published paper,” he noted.

One of the greatest benefits of the immersive research experience is the potential for student interns to authorship in high-profile research-based journals. The credentials of such publications can help students further their careers, including pursuing medical school and graduate school. 

Katz, who has worked with CHC students since the beginning of the partnership appreciates the qualities among the interns of being dedicated, self-motivated, curious, and kind-spirited. “I feel most proud of these undergraduate students when they become competent and efficient when they correct me on something, and when they take off on their own and run their project,” says Katz.

Michael Lopez-Zabala stands with his FCCC mentor Sunny Liu and fellow student Rebecca Smith.Chestnut Hill prides itself on its relationship with the cutting-edge research happening in Philadelphia and the opportunities undergraduate students have had to be a part of that world by working with scientists at FCCC.

“CHC is indeed very fortunate to have such a strong and enduring relationship with FCCC which spawned two Nobel prize winners as well as a number of members in the National Academy of Science,” says Kulkosky, who himself did research at FCCC studying the mechanism of HIV DNA integration. An accomplished scientist in his own right, Kulkosky has been teaching at the College for over 20 years and has mentored his fair share of biology majors who have gone on to excel in the FCCC program.

This list includes Jade Wilson ‘18, who is currently pursuing a dual MD/Ph.D. program at Temple University following her time at CHC and FCCC.

“My time at Fox Chase opened a lot of doors to other opportunities,” says Wilson. “At the same time, the support of Chestnut Hill College professors like Dr. K got me to where I am now.”

Wilson majored in biology with a concentration in bioscience technology and minored in chemistry while at CHC. She worked with Katz during her internship at FCCC and as Wilson noted, it was the connections she made in her internship and the ability to work with people at the top of their field while practicing using innovative technology, that helped define her career path. Currently, Wilson works in the cancer epigenetics lab at Fox Chase run by Johnathan Whetstine, Ph.D., who presented at the College's 32nd Annual Biomedical Distinguished Lecture Series in April.

Each year, FCCC invites a select few junior and senior CHC students to be a part of the internship. Throughout the academic year, students commit to at least one summer and two regular undergraduate semesters (approximately 15 months) conducting research.

In addition to the immersive internship experiences, the College has an educational partnership with FCCC. This includes a special senior-level course entitled “The Cure: From Benchtop to Bedside” where students are taught by top-notch post-doctoral fellows from FCCC. Through this course, biology majors are exposed to learning from scientists in the field.

As the CHC/FCCC partnership enters the next decade, Kulkosky hopes that the internship can continue with more FCCC researchers taking on students in their labs to produce more talented scientists in the field. “FCC researchers and the institution itself have been honored with many accolades over its long history as a highly recognized and prize-winning cancer research and treatment center. CHC science majors are especially blessed because FCCC is right in our own backyard,” says Kulkosky.

Joe Kulkosky and Johnathan Whetstine have both been helping strengthen the partnership between CHC and FCCC.Michael Lopez-Zabala ‘26 is one of those science majors taking advantage of the opportunity the partnership with FCCC affords. A sophomore interning with FCCC under principle investigator, Dr. Yu Liu, Lopez-Zabala is conducting experiments such as miniprep, a technique that allows scientists to isolate plasmid DNA from bacterial cultures, and has started his own independent investigations.

“I initially had some doubts about my abilities when I first started in the lab as a sophomore and was unsure if I would be able to contribute effectively," says Lopez-Zabala. "However, over time, I have come to appreciate the lab's valuable learning opportunities. I have realized that it is okay not to know everything and that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process. I have adopted a more positive mindset, and now I am open to experimentation and learning from any setbacks."

Yu’s lab is focused on optimizing miniprep procedures to achieve a higher DNA concentration for cell line development and potential modifications using CRISPR technology. Lopez-Zabala emphasizes that he is interested in pursuing an MD-Ph.D. program because of his experience in the lab.

“Being in the lab early on has sparked my interest in research even more," he says. "I am feeling increasingly ambitious about applying for this program and delving deeper into the world of research. I am motivated to join the fight against cancer, as I know many people who have been affected by this terrible disease. Whether as a doctor, a Principal Investigator, or both, I am eager to contribute to making a difference in this field."

“The reputation our CHC student interns and some CHC graduates have left by their excellent work over these past 10 years has garnered a legacy such that researchers at FCCC readily take on our student interns in a variety of labs mostly dedicated to high-profile cancer research and treatment,” says Kulkosky. 

- Jaime Renman


Posted In: Around Campus