A New Summer Research Program for Undergraduate Students at IICD

Lorenza Favrot
August 23, 2022

This summer, the Irving Institute for Cancer Dynamics opened its door to five non-Columbia undergraduate interns who carried out research projects for ten weeks. The students had an opportunity to perform cutting-edge research at the intersection of cancer biology and mathematical sciences under the mentorship of IICD researchers. The Institute launched this new summer research program for undergraduate students last Fall as part of an effort to expand its outreach and educational activities. “Research internship opportunities can significantly impact the career path of a young scientist. As the Institute is growing, implementing such a program seemed like a great step for IICD,” says Dr. Simon Tavaré, Professor of Statistics and Biological Sciences and Director of the Irving Institute for Cancer Dynamics. The five students were selected from over hundred applications. Overall, they reflect the interdisciplinary research of the Institute: the participants are studying a wide range of majors, including biomedical engineering, computer science, biochemistry, mathematics, and biology.

From left to right: a woman in a lab coat looks in a microscope, a woman is working on a laptop, a woman wearing a lab coat is pipetting.

“At the IICD, I enjoyed being in a collaborative, creative environment where the boundaries between math and science intersect to battle the disease of cancer,” explains Mackenzie Sky, a rising senior in biology and chemistry at SUNY Purchase. She investigated glioblastoma resistance to temozolomide using single-cell CRISPR base editing in Dr. José L. McFaline-Figueroa’s laboratory, IICD Associate Member. Isha Arora, a rising junior in biomedical engineering and computer science at Cornell University, worked with IICD graduate student Joy Fan in Dr. Elham Azizi’s laboratory on a novel deconvolution algorithm to study the effect of copy number variation on immunotherapy response in cancer cells. “I truly enjoyed participating in the IICD Summer Research Internship as the program allowed me to grow as a researcher!” she explains. “Over the summer, I was able to explore interdisciplinary fields, make connections with professionals in the field, and hone my research presentation skills. I am grateful to have completed this amazing opportunity, met inspiring people, and contributed to impactful research.”

Three IICD Faculty members – Elham Azizi, PhD (Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Herbert and Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Cancer Data Research (in the Herbert and Florence Institute for Cancer Dynamics and the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center), Andrew Blumberg, PhD (Herbert and Florence Irving Professor of Cancer Data Research (in the Herbert and Florence Irving Institute of Cancer Dynamics and the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center) and Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science), José L. McFaline-Figueroa, PhD (Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering) – and two Associate Research Scientists – Karol Nowicki-Osuch, PhD and Sanket Rane, PhD – mentored the interns for the summer. “The IICD summer internship program was a great opportunity to gain and expand my experience in mentoring students. I always enjoyed sharing my experience with the next generation of researchers; this program provides ample space for developing students' skills that will benefit their future career paths,” says Dr. Karol Nowicki-Osuch. “One of the best-organized programs I have seen, the IICD summer internship offered an immersive experience for undergraduates to explore the interface of quantitative sciences and cancer biology and an opportunity to attend multiple tours, seminars, and networking events which expanded the students’ horizons for future careers,” adds Dr. Elham Azizi.

Clockwise: a man is showing the details of a scientific equipment to a group of 5 students; a group of people is sitting in a conference room and listening to a presentation by a man standing in front of a screen; group of people sitting outside and discussing; a woman is wearing VR goggles and a man is teaching her how to use it.

Throughout the program, the students participated in weekly events and engaged with IICD scientists, leaders in industry, and other summer interns. The weekly events included several scientific seminars, a demonstration of the use of virtual reality in cancer research, a science communication workshop with BioBus (a mobile science laboratory), a tour of the Columbia ZMBBI Microscopy Facility, and visits to the New York Genome Center and the JLabs (Johnson & Johnson Innovation). The program also incorporated several events with other summer research programs - including the Columbia Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences in Mathematical Modeling, the BioBus internship program, and the Center for Integrated Cellular Analysis Summer Program - to provide the interns with an opportunity to connect with other summer interns within and outside Columbia. “Such a great experience that has most definitely enhanced my understanding of research on a deeper level while simultaneously allowing me to build an irreplaceable network of connections!” explains Allison Pascual, a rising sophomore in biology at Stony Brook University. She worked with Dr. Sanket Rane, quantifying age-associated T cell variation in healthy individuals and cancer patients.

Two pictures of woman, each standing in front of a scientific poster and each discussing with someone

The students concluded the program with research presentations in front of the IICD researchers and a poster presentation at the Columbia University Pathways Programs Poster Symposium. “I couldn't have asked for a better summer research experience than this! With this program's one-on-one mentoring and diverse lab tours, seminars, social, and professional events, I was able to see every behind-the-scenes in this field,” said Theresa Luo, a rising sophomore in biochemistry at the University of Southern California. She studied a novel fixation method for single-cell DNA and RNA sequencing at the New York Genome Center under the mentoring of Dr. Karol Nowicki-Osuch. “Most importantly, I was able to learn many new computational and wet-lab skills and techniques and then apply them to my very own research project!” Theresa continues.

With the program's initial run exceeding expectations, the Institute will offer the summer research program again next year. “It has been so inspiring to see these five students engaging so quickly in their research and carrying out fantastic research projects in such a short time this summer. Several of our interns will even continue working with their mentors during the Fall semester,” says Dr. Lorenza Favrot, IICD Program Manager, Outreach and Communication, who coordinated the Summer Research Program. “We look forward to seeing where their career path takes them next.”