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Cancer researcher Terumi Kohwi-Shigematsu ’71 offers Washington College students the kind of internship she once craved.
When Terumi Kohwi-Shigematsu ’71 was an undergrad at Washington College, finding an internship in a cutting-edge research lab was like searching for the mythical Bigfoot.
“By my senior year, I was hungry for active research experience in a research laboratory,” she says.
Kohwi-Shigematsu was grateful for a high-quality education she received at Washington College and the financial support she received, including full room and board as well as tuition for her junior and senior years. So when she landed at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) in 2015, conducting breakthrough research on potential cancer treatments, she thought about how she might give back. Mentoring young scientists in her lab was the perfect answer.
She hosted two Washington College students in the summer of 2017—Brynne E. Brouse ’18 and Jason P. Mercando ’17. This summer, she hosted biology major Paul Hart ’19. Each of these biology majors joined her research group and were trained in molecular and cell biological techniques. Her thinking was that early exposure to research may stimulate their desire to conduct basic medical research that could cure the most aggressive of cancers.
“We have been working on a protein called SATB1 that regulates about a thousand genes by changing how DNA is folded in nuclei,” Kohwi-Shigematsu says. “Once cancer cells express SATB1, they will acquire the ability to metastasize. SATB1 and other nuclear proteins that regulate gene expression in a similar manner are classified as genome organizers and they have the ability to change cell function. Some of them could be very important therapeutic targets for cancer, because it’s the metastasis that kills patients.”
In Kohwi-Shigematsu’s lab, interns like Hart are specifically trained in techniques such as immunostaining, fluorescent microscopy, mouse brain sectioning, gene expression, and protein analyses.
“The technique is fundamental to research,” she says. “If you learn the technique and can generate the data, you know exactly how other people have generated the data published in journals, and you understand better how the experiments are designed and what that data means.”
A better understanding of science is just one benefit of this prized training. It also boosts applications in a competitive field for advanced degrees. Mindful of his plans for medical school, Hart embraced the chance to test his independence.
“At first it was overwhelming, going from an environment where you work closely with your professor and fellow students, and you have your hand held throughout your lab experience. In this situation, you are told what to do once. You have to make your own analysis. You have to develop your own results. And you have to continually go from one experiment to the next.”
Kohwi-Shigematsu says students from her alma mater are up to the challenge, having had such intensive preparation from their professors. And it helps that both mentor and student are products of that singular attention.
“Terumi and I are very different to certain extents,” Hart says, “but we both went through a similar four-year period of our lives at WC. It’s a bond you have before you even meet, and it really helps.”
Hart says that, for all he’s learned about research in Kohwi-Shigematsu’s lab, he’s gained invaluable life lessons, as well.
“This has been a cultural, character-building experience. This is the first time I’ve been completely on my own for an extended period of time, not knowing anyone in San Francisco. At first it was daunting,” Hart says. “Now that I’ve done this, once I graduate, I’ll be able to hit the ground running.”
Such confidence in launching a young career is precisely Kohwi-Shigematsu’s aim, and what makes mentoring worthwhile.
“I owe Washington College a lot,” she says. “I saw this as a way of returning the favor, by training some students and looking after them. I taught Paul and some of the other students not just the technique, but how to become professionals. Teaching them to be more hungry, more curious, to ask questions – those are the basic things necessary for a professional career.”
Hart, with his eye on becoming a cardiac or neurosurgeon, is asking all the right questions.
“Growing up, I considered business or politics. But I tried to decide what I could do that would mean the most. I want to strive my hardest to make an impact through a medical degree. I feel like this whole experience has shaped me into a better person.”