A Freshman Summer with Breast Cancer Cells


Cesar Monarrez Spotlight Research Figure
X-ray crystal structure of Maspin
Taken from: Law, Ruby H. P. “The High Resolution Crystal Structure of the Human Tumor Suppressor Maspin Reveals a Novel Conformational Switch in the G-helix.”Journal of Biological Chemistry 280.23 (2005): 22356-2364. Print.

More importantly, the summer rotation gave me a newfound sense of confidence in my scientific knowledge.

Entering Harvard as a pre-med freshman in the fall of 2011, I was well aware of the prerequisites I would soon have to fulfill: enrolling in science courses, hospital volunteering, and shadowing, to name a few. While many of these were activities I had undertaken in high school, there was another aspect of being pre-med that was not so intuitive. This was the task of conducting scientific research. Though science had always been a passion of mine, I had zero experience working in a research laboratory and, to add to this, I was mostly enrolled in introductory level life science courses. Needless to say, I didn’t think I had enough of a background in science to start conducting research.

When the spring semester started, I began exploring summer opportunities both at home in Chicago and abroad. Scrolling through various websites and Google results, I came across an eight-week program at Northwestern University’s Physical Sciences Oncology Center (NU-PSOC) where students worked in Northwestern cancer biology labs while attending weekly seminars led by cancer researchers.

That June, I found myself working full-time in an NU-PSOC lab whose focus was on Maspin (Mammary Serine Protease Inhibitor), a tumor suppressor gene whose anti-cancer properties have been noted in multiple types of cells. Because of Maspin’s anti-tumor effects, my team was interested in learning how exogenous recombinant Maspin protein could enter breast cancer cells. Over the course of eight weeks, not only did I master basic lab techniques like western blotting and PCR, but I also became familiar with advanced project-specific protocols, such as using laser scanning confocal microscopy to examine Maspin activity at the plasma membrane.

By the end of my time in the lab, I had grown fond of the research and the individuals I worked with. More importantly, the summer rotation gave me a a newfound sense of confidence in my scientific knowledge. It turned out that what I knew was indeed enough for comprehending what my principal investigator was studying. Although learning about specific pathways or more complex topics was difficult, it was precisely my background in cellular biology and chemistry that allowed me to even begin to understand these hard-to-grasp ideas. To top it all off, I was even able to get my name on an upcoming journal publication that will feature some of the data I collected.

Reflecting on this summer experience almost one year later, I now realize that my fears about research as an incoming freshman were misplaced. As long as there is commitment and a desire to learn, any research topic is approachable. Harvard is unique in that it provides students with a wide range of options for delving into almost any area of interest. With this in mind, I encourage every student interested in research, especially freshmen, to go out and explore the studies being conducted by faculty both here in Cambridge and around the world. You may be pleasantly surprised, as I was, to learn how accessible and exciting the field of research can be.

Students in the Northwestern Cancer Research Program. (Author, first row, third from right)
Students in the Northwestern Cancer Research Program. (Author, first row, third from right)

The writer can be reached at jmonarrez@college.harvard.edu.