Each morning this summer, when Santiago Espinosa, ’17, pulled out his Boston Children’s Hospital ID badge to enter his research lab, he couldn’t wait to begin work.
“I feel excited every day,” he said. “I get to work in such a prestigious lab, and it’s like ‘wow, I can’t believe I’m here.’”
Espinosa was an intern in the lab of Dr. Leonard Zon, who is affiliated with Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital. Zon’s research encompasses stem cells, melanoma, and different types of blood diseases. Espinosa focused on melanoma.
“Essentially, we are working with zebra fish to find new tumor suppressors,” Espinosa said. “We know, as of now, that there are certain genes, when they are over-activated, they tend to lead to cancer or tumor formation.”
However, the over-expression of these genes is not enough to cause a tumor; there also needs to be an inactivation of a tumor suppressor. “We are trying to identify those tumor suppressors, and possible pathways for how they work to form tumors,” he said.
Espinosa’s internship was through the elite Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) national Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). EXROP provides each student an all-expenses paid 10-week mentored research experience at a prestigious lab or research facility.
After participating in the Integrated Qualitative Science (IQS) course in his first year at Richmond, Espinosa was invited by UR biology faculty to apply for EXROP. He first participated in the program last summer and was invited back this summer to continue his research through a capstone program.
This was not Espinosa’s first research experience, having worked in biology professor Linda Boland’s lab on campus and researched at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) while in high school, but each experience offers new opportunities. “What attracts me the most about research is the opportunity to be creative,” he said. “People think that science is rigid and straightforward, but I think there’s a lot of room for interpretation, for creativity, and for problem-solving. That’s what makes it so appealing.”
At the same time, Espinosa acknowledges the reality of this kind of work is often regimented. Creativity may inspire new answers, but the path to proving them requires a lot of testing and documenting. “I spent 10 weeks my first summer trying to find an efficient way to knock out one of my target genes and couldn’t find one,” he said. “But this summer, the first week in, we found one that worked.”
“One thing I appreciate from this internship experience is just how strong you have to be mentally,” he said. “In most other fields, you’re used to things working. Most of the time, especially in biology, things don’t work out and it’s out of your control; the best thing to do is keep your head up, and keep pushing.”
Espinosa’s time in the Zon lab has given him practical experience to help him decide what he’d like to do after Richmond. “Right now, I plan on applying to MD/Ph.D. dual-degree programs, which are meant for people who want to do research in a clinical setting,” he said.
For him, there’s no denying the breakthroughs and the excitement of conducting research. “We can use zebra fish to model diseases in humans,” he said. “When you think about it, that’s an incredible thing. We might not find anything right now, but we are at the very frontier of what might come next, and that’s an exciting feeling.”