Melissa Garcia says she loves the "garden rooms," the glass lounges in the Biological Sciences Building.

“It can be intimidating to apply for positions in a lab especially with no previous lab experience like myself, but it honestly can open up so many doors,” says Melissa Garcia, who spent the summer of 2021 as one of the inaugural MCDB Horizons Summer Interns.

Expanding opportunities for undergraduates to gain research experience is a priority for MCDB, and the Horizons Summer Intern Program makes it possible for students who otherwise couldn’t afford to spend the summer on research to participate in science. It welcomed students without previous research experience and who may not have considered research as an option for themselves. The program supported eight students from May to August in MCDB labs, participating in research alongside faculty and trainees. In addition, the interns also met for a weekly information session on careers in science, applying to graduate programs, and other topics aimed at acquainting them with opportunities in science fields.

A Biology, Health, and Society major from Sturgis, MI, Garcia continues to do research as part of MCDB Assistant Professor Josie Clowney’s research group. “My research has involved dissecting Drosophila brains to determine apoptosis in mAL neurons in both females and males. In other words, my task was to determine when these mAL neurons are being expressed and when they are beginning to die in both sexes,” she explains. “At the beginning, I struggled. I genuinely thought I was never going to master dissecting Drosophila brains at their different life stages, but luckily I did.”

“This experience definitely confirmed my interest in science,” Garcia says. It has expanded her horizons, as well. She says she had ” the idea of attending a medical school after undergrad cemented into my brain, and now I am very indecisive. I learned to really enjoy research. After having been exposed to the research environment, I found interest in other career paths. It did open up other possibilities such as a potential PhD or MD/PhD."

Her favorite memory from the summer was getting to meet other Horizon students and the PhD students working with them, and “genuinely developing a connection with them.”

Lily Kalcec points out that the view from the lab on the 5th floor of the BSB can't be beat!

Supportive Coworkers + Creativity

Sophomore Lily Kalcec, Roseville, MI, who spent her summer in MCDB Professor Matt Chapman’s Lab, discovered a winning combination of coworkers and creativity.

“I went into this experience so happy to finally be able to work at a bench and do research in-person, but I found out that a lot of the fun also comes from sitting at a table with lab mates bouncing ideas off of each other and getting to be creative with planning projects and future ideas. I did end up loving the benchwork, but I can’t get enough of the creativity involved in being a researcher. I even have a mini notebook devoted just to writing down ideas for experiments to test and see if maybe my 'crazy hypotheses' are right or not!"

“My favorite memory is the first time I was able to hang out with my lab mates outside of the BSB at a get-together at my PI’s house. It was so nice to be able to take that time to build relationships and feel truly a part of the little community we have. Having kind, supportive coworkers/lab mates can truly make all the difference.”

Kalcec has continued her research in the Chapman group through the academic year, immersed in research on amyloid proteins.. “For E. Coli and many other microbes, these extracellular fibers known as amyloids assist the cells in their creation of biofilms, helping them stick to surfaces such as your teeth, skin, and all over the environment in general."

“Amyloids are very helpful to bacteria when they are attached to the outside of the cell,” Kalcec continues, “but their buildup inside of the cell can lead to cytotoxicity and cell death. Fortunately, these bacteria often have a way of avoiding this. One way some bacteria, including E. Coli, avoid internal amyloid formation is by having a protein called CsgC that prevents monomeric amyloid-forming proteins from combining together to form fibers. My job in the lab is to figure out how exactly this protein works.”

There are numerous benefits in discovering its mechanism of action, she explains. “Amyloids, despite their helpfulness to bacteria, are often harmful to humans, being a leading cause of neuron death and broken cell-to-cell connections in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Understanding how CsgC works can help find a mechanism of slowing or even preventing amyloid formation in human brains, but also the other areas of life where biofilms pose a threat.”

The internship helped Kalcec shape her future plans. “I’m still figuring out details as I gain experience, but right now all I know is that I’m absolutely loving work in molecular and cellular biology research. I definitely want to go to grad school to continue education on the subject matter and further my research. I think both industry positions as a researcher and academia sound interesting, so only time will tell!”

“I am just really appreciative of both the MCDB Horizons internship and its leaders for the support of getting involved in research, especially during the pandemic with so much uncertainty of whether undergraduate students could even get that experience or not. I am appreciative for the support of the program and for the support of my lab in helping me pursue something that gives me such incredible fulfillment.”

2021 Horizons Interns: (L-R) Annabelle Thelen, Chang Lab; Olatunji (Tunji) Osobamiro, Csankovzski Lab; Ahmed Bannaga, Wanlu Du Lab; Lily Kalcec, Chapman Lab; Kayla Jones, Kwon Lab; Victoria (Ever) O'Donnell, Ming Li Lab; Rita El Jbeily, DeSantis Lab; Not pictured: Melissa Garcia, Clowney Lab

Why undergrad research?

Undergraduate research experiences help students gain skills in critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration. They help focus career interests and deepen classroom learning. Critical to bringing broader participation of underrepresented communities in science, undergrad research experiences increase student persistence in science, according to education researchers. “The fact that these students are continuing to do research in our labs tells me that the program was a success,” says MCDB Chair Ken Cadigan.