Last spring, we asked several current Penn students in the College of Arts & Sciences to talk to us about their summer internship experience.
We hope these brief interviews give you some insight into the many opportunities and career fields that await you out in the world!
Today’s interview is with Sarah Mann, CAS ’14
Where did you work/job title?
I worked in the Laboratory of Innovative and Translational Nursing Research as a research assistant and laboratory technician under the guidance of Dr. Joseph Libonati. The laboratory research focuses on the mechanisms by which exercise training benefits the heart in a host of different diseases including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, myocardial infarction, and doxorubicin-induced cardiotoxicity (chemotherapy drug that has cardiotoxic effects).
How did you get involved in your summer position?
During January 2013, I began looking for research positions, particularly ones that would enable me to get lots of hands on experience and conduct my own experiments. I was browsing through a list of research opportunities and came across Dr. Libonati’s lab and was eager to learn more abut his lab. After interviewing and receiving the positions as research assistant and laboratory technician I broached the topic of a summer position with him, which he gladly offered.
Did you have any background with this subject/field before?
I actually did not have much of a background with either cardiology or exercise, though I was familiar with the cardiotoxic effects of certain chemotherapy drugs. I had previously worked in two labs, though (genetics lab at the University of Arizona and a breast cancer lab at the Arizona Cancer Center) and was familiar with basic laboratory techniques. While I did not have much prior experience, I did not believe that to be a hindrance at all with my work, as Dr. Libonati promotes an environment of hands-on learning. I did have to complete a slew of primary training and become certified to work with mice.
What was your favorite part of the experience?
My favorite part of my experience working in Dr. Libonati’s lab was learning a variety of techniques that I can carry with me to different research opportunities I may have upon graduation. I was certified to work with mice (running/training them on a treadmill for one of the research projects), learned how to perform cell culture experiments and even got to design my own – looking at the potential for glucose and insulin to mitigate the effects of cisplatin, a chemotherapy drug, induced cardiotoxicity on rat cardiomyocytes. I also had the opportunity to learn and perform a rather unique technique, the Langendorff perfusion (isolated perfused heart assay) on rat hearts. This technique is truly unbelievable as I watched Dr. Libonati perform surgery to excise the heart from the rat, and attach the heart to a series of tubing to perform the heart assay allowing the heart to continue to beat outside of the body (due to the infusion/flow of Krebs solution, which mimics the blood). The Langendorff technique enables the examination of cardiac contractile strength and heart rate to be studied even during a scenario mimicking a heart attack (lowering or turning off the flow of Krebs solution). I truly enjoyed learning all of these techniques and being able to actually conduct experiments rather than simply shadowing.
What was something you learned/did that you didn’t expect?
I did not anticipate learning about the statistical process of analyzing data or the process of writing scientific articles for publication. However I am so grateful for having been given this experience. I learned how to use STATA and which specific tests to run to analyze a set of data. I also was able to participate in the process of writing a scientific paper for publication including data analysis, formatting figures, and actual writing of the different sections. These skills are incredibly valuable as I continue to pursue my interest in research.
What was the most valuable lesson you took away from this experience?
The most valuable lesson I took away from this experience is that research does not always go the way you expect, your hypothesis may be proven wrong or even certain experiments may not run as planned. Troubleshooting during these circumstances is essential. Oftentimes research can be frustrating and I’ve come to realize that great determination and perseverance is needed to be successful in this field. Success does not come without an immense amount of hard work and the drive and desire to see the project through.
How has this experience influenced your long-term career plans/goals?
My experience working in Dr. Libonati’s lab has actually come to shape my long-term career plans and goals greatly. I have always been interested in medicine, however I had never given much thought to pursing a career in research. After working in my lab I am confident that I want to continue performing experiments and contributing to the vast database of scientific literature. I will be pursing an MD/PhD in my near future, attempting to combine my passion for nutrition with my interest in oncology.
What would you recommend to other students trying to pursue the Road Less Traveled?
I would recommend for other students to pursue a field of interest that truly sounds interesting to them. That is, it is important to follow one’s passions. I strongly believe that I felt so rewarded by working in my lab because I was very interested in the research we were conducting (looking at the effects of different chemo drugs on the heart). Furthermore, though, and perhaps just as importantly, I think it is essential to find an opportunity that allows one to actually get hands-on learning. While yes, one can learn by watching, learning by doing is that much more powerful. I am extremely appreciative of my opportunity to work in the Laboratory of Innovative and Translational Nursing Research under Dr. Libonati and fellow researchers and hope that others will pursue their passions and the “road less traveled” – not just simply settling for any opportunity along the way.