During the Fall 2017 semester, I had the amazing opportunity to work in a cellular biology research lab, through my study abroad university’s Latitude Zero Ecuador Research Initiative (L0ERI) Program. For a little bit of back story, I applied to this program well before the deadline of June 1. I knew that only 5 international students were accepted each semester to participate in the program, but I was optimistic about my chances. However, after waiting over a month past the deadline, I conceded that I must not have been selected. Then, on July 14th, only 6 days before I would begin my journey in Ecuador, I received an email with my acceptance into the program in the area of breast cancer research! I remember feeling extremely excited and telling my family; shortly thereafter, that excitement turned into nerves. How would I be able to conduct research in a different language? Would I be lost the whole time?
During the first week of school, I learned that I would be going to the Hospital de los Valles associated with USFQ to perform my research. At first I was a little overwhelmed, but after meeting and talking with my research professor, Dr. Andrés Caicedo, I immediately felt better. To begin, he assigned me a few papers and documents to read in order to give me a general understanding of what cancer is. Some people would be less than thrilled to be assigned over 40 pages of reading, but once I started learning more about the ins and outs of cancer, I was fascinated! I was learning new information and soaking it in, all at the same time. I remember having thoughtful discussions with Dr. Caicedo about everything I had learned. I think he could tell I was excited to be learning so much, since I must have asked him a million questions that week. Even though we had some of these conversations in English, he still told me that most of the day-to-day laboratory discussions and experiments would be in Spanish.
Eventually, I learned more about the scope of the research group’s assignment called the Master Genes Project. Within this project, we were investigating the effects of altered gene expression associated with aggressive breast cancer in order to develop a better diagnostic tool. Currently, the methods for breast cancer diagnostics can be expensive, invasive, and not very helpful in catching the disease early on. If the lab could develop a test where the expression of a handful of gene combinations could provide the patient with an early diagnosis, it would help immensely with the treatment of this disease.
Next, I began meeting all of the research students helping with the program. Two PhD students, Joseth and Diego, headed several experiments that myself and another undergraduate research student, Carla, helped out with. This included cell cultivation, RNA extraction, and qPCR testing which ultimately gave us the expression of each gene we were studying. Here, I was able to learn new cellular and molecular biology techniques. We spent time designing the experiments in terms of which genes we wanted to study next, and how much of each reaction component we had to add to the mixtures in order to create the experiments. As you can see in the pictures, we wore lab coats, gloves, and face masks in the laboratory. The face masks were especially challenging for me because it was even harder to understand what my lab mates were saying to me in Spanish with their voices muffled. I have to admit, at times I was really confused and a bit frustrated that I couldn’t understand everything that was going on. However, by the end of the experience, I was speaking more fluently with everyone and understanding a lot more! It was definitely a challenging experience, but one I would do again in a heartbeat.
During my time in the laboratory, it didn’t just feel like an internship or a class; I felt like I was part of a community. My research professor, the other research students/future doctors and I were all working together toward a common goal of identifying different genes that have altered expressions in aggressive breast cancers. There is something about having a common goal that causes people to feel closer. I enjoyed being part of a research team that was so focused and hardworking. This feeling explains one of the reasons why I want to be a disease research scientist for my career. I want to have this sense of community, like a family, within my work. Each individual on the team does his/her part so that, when all the parts are combined, it makes a difference in the long run.
I also had the chance to speak with a physician and surgeon, Dr. Paulina Lugo, about her work in diagnostics and treatments for breast cancer. This helped to give my experience context not only within the laboratory, but also inside the clinical aspects of my research. I learned about the different types of breast cancer; which ones are most treatable and less serious, and which ones are highly aggressive and harder to control. I was able to do a tour of the hospital and see all of the instruments for mammograms and ultrasounds. I learned where doctors would sit down to talk with their patients, where the patients might live, and more about the day-to-day lives of these types of physicians. Even though I plan to go into research and not become a doctor, this opportunity allowed me to better understand the importance of learning about the project and the disease from all different perspectives!
Another fun part of being in this research lab was the enthusiasm everyone had for USFQ’s attempt to break the world record for having the most amount of people dressed in Star Wars costumes in one place. Dr. Caicedo even bought a lightsaber into the lab to take pictures with to help advertise the event! We had a lot of fun planning what costumes we were going to wear for the day of the event.
At the event I saw both Carla and Joseth, so naturally we had to take pictures together! Joseth and I went as Leia, and Carla went as Padma. It was really fun to see all the different costumes and excitement within the USFQ community. By the end of the day, we had over 6,000 people all dressed up! If all of the documentation checks out, we will have broken the previous Guinness World Record!
In the first week of December 2017, I gave my final research presentation to my friends, lab mates, professor, and the L0ERI community. Although the presentation was in English, I actually had trouble writing some of the slides because I had learned certain terminology in Spanish and didn’t exactly know the English translation! I felt confident in the information I was presenting, as I knew I had learned so much about the project and that the information would stick with me for a long time. Having this experience really solidified the excitement I have for working in a research laboratory, from being part of an integral team to constantly learning new information about the project and performing scientific experiments to reach my goals. The experiences I had in this research lab have been extremely meaningful and important to me, and I’m so glad that I had this opportunity here in Ecuador!
About the Author – Colby Schweibenz, Fall 2017 Quito & Elizabethtown College student
Colby is a senior Biochemistry major and Spanish minor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Originally from Medford, NJ, she is interested in becoming a disease research biochemist after furthering her education in graduate school. Colby is very excited to be studying abroad with BCA in Quito, Ecuador during the fall 2017 semester.