Faces of IICD: Mackenzie Sky, SRP Alumna

Editor's note:

Faces of IICD is a newly created blog series to allow our members to share more about their career paths and personal stories.

Mackenzie Sky, edited by Lorenza Favrot
November 15, 2023

Mackenzie Sky is a postgraduate research associate in the Department of Dermatology at Yale University investigating antigen specificities of B cells in cutaneous lupus in the labs of Dr. Alicia Little and Dr. Joseph Craft. She was part of the first IICD Summer Research Program (SRP) cohort in the summer of 2022. In the latest "Faces of IICD" blog series, Mackenzie shares her experience being part of the IICD SRP and how the program gave her the confidence to become a scientist.

I trained for 2.5 years in the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, SUNY, on the path toward becoming a professional ballet dancer. I always had an interest in science and medicine. However, the rigorous dance curriculum did not allow me the time to explore these interests. When the pandemic lockdown began, I decided to take a break from dance courses and enroll in science courses. A semester later, I switched my major to biology. This transition scared me because I was leaving a field in which I possessed talent, opportunity, and passion. However, it was exciting because I was entering the unknown - the unknown possibility that I could discover skills outside my identity as a dancer.

At the IICD, I interned in Dr. José McFaline-Figueroa’s Chemical Genomics Lab. I studied glioblastoma resistance to temozolomide using a single-cell CRISPR-base editing system. I came into the lab with no prior experience due to the nature of online courses and online research during the pandemic lockdown. Anna Schoonen, a PhD student, taught me everything I needed to know for my summer research project, from tissue culture work to presentation skills. Anna is a patient, kind, and inspiring scientist to learn from. I will never forget when she spent nearly two hours with me, helping me prepare for my final poster and oral presentations. Purchase College is a liberal arts college that does not have doctorate graduate programs. Working alongside Anna under the mentoring of Dr. McFaline-Figueroa was the first exposure I had to what earning a graduate degree entail. The IICD Summer Research Program gave me a tangible framework to envision myself as a scientist. 

A montage displaying three pictures. Clockwise description. In picture 1, Mackenzie Sky wearing a lab coat is sitting at a lab hood pipetting. In picture 2, Mackenzie is standing next to her poster at the 2022 MIT IEEE Undergraduate Research Technology Conference. In picture 3, group picture of the 5 interns participating in the 2022 IICD SRP standing in front of a wall with the Columbia University logo.

Outside of the professional skills the program provided, I accessed a culture within research I did not know existed. Almost every day, the entire lab would eat lunch together in the courtyard and learn about each other’s unique professional and personal backgrounds. The lab consisted of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students from all over the world and from different walks of life. One of my favorite memories in the lab was when we played an online Pictionary game from time to time. It brought a lot of wonderful laughter that provided a nice break from the stream of intense focus. I also enjoyed how the program offered weekly activities for the interns that brought us back together from the different labs we were placed in, such as seminars, lunch outings, or networking events. Within a single program, I learned from my fellow interns about different types of projects from other areas within STEM, all with the common goal of fighting cancer. The IICD is a unique place that fosters interdisciplinary collaboration and creativity at all levels of positions - from interns to principal investigators.

Before beginning my position as an IICD SRP intern, I had a pre-existing notion that my lack of research experience would hold me back. However, that was not the case at all. My unique background as a dancer was, in fact, a strength of mine. Since I had experience collaborating with dancers and choreographers, I assimilated well into a team environment within the lab and the internship cohort. Also, growing up in NYC allowed me to help my fellow interns navigate their new environment, and I was able to explore new parts of the city for myself with them. Our different backgrounds gave us a unique, fun, and enriching experience together.

I am currently a Postgraduate Research Associate investigating cutaneous lupus in the lab of Dr. Alicia Little and Dr. Joseph Craft at Yale University. I felt prepared to take on this role because of the IICD SRP experience. I came out of the program with the confidence to become a scientist. Specifically, I am planning to apply to MD-PhD programs. I hope to foster collaboration between the clinical setting and biomedical sciences to tackle diseases where the body turns on itself, like cancer and autoimmune diseases, to enhance patients’ lives.