Author Archives: Maddie Ojeda

Summer of Learning!

This has probably been the most learning-filled summer I have ever had. Coming into the summer I had little idea as to what to exactly expect from my first research experience. One of the biggest lessons I have learned this summer is that research can be exciting in so many different ways. There may be a bigger end goal in mind but the day-to-day successes can be just as exciting as you never know where each day will lead you. Failure and mistakes are bound to occur along the way, but if you view these obstacles as learning experiences there is so much potential to grow in the lab.

I also noticed that as the weeks went by, my abilities working in the lab increased drastically. My primary mentor, Nikki, greatly helped me to gain confidence working in the lab, which was greatly appreciated since I didn’t have prior experience working in a lab.

I also learned the value of having a positive support system within the lab. All of the members of my lab are very positive and not only made my lab experience enjoyable but they were also always more than willing to answer questions or give advice when needed. I thus had a comfortable, positive environment to grow.

I had a very positive experience conducting research this summer and have decided to continue research this upcoming school year. I am so excited to have the opportunity to continue research in the Collier Lab and can’t wait to continue to learn more!

Coming full circle

One of the faculty talks that stood out the most to me was Dr. Charles Gerbasch’s talk. After his talk I realized that his name had sounded pretty familiar. It then hit me that back when I was researching universities to attend, Dr. Gerbasch’s lab had struck my interest back then as well. Research like his had been one of the reasons I later decided to attend Duke.

One thing that really stood out to me about Gerbasch is that he places a strong emphasis on the overlap of the various fields of science. Gerbasch emphasized that as science becomes more advanced, the more intermixed the various disciplines of science become with each other. Thus while Gerbasch majored in chemical engineering, he is also well versed in other fields of science such as genetics and molecular biology. Seeing how various fields of science intermingle with each other is something I find very interesting and hope to find in a career.

Cutting-edge research is currently being conducted at the Gerbasch lab. The lab is using various genetic-engineering methods to research ways to improve treatment for patients of an abundance of diseases and disabilities. I really enjoyed hearing how open-minded the Gerbasch lab is to experimenting with various methods.

Overall, I really enjoyed the faculty seminars. Being an undergraduate who has little idea what type of career I want to pursue, it was interesting seeing the journey these various faculty members took to end up in their careers. I also enjoyed hearing all of the life lessons and perspectives on science the various faculty members shared and I learned a lot from the insights they had to share.

Abstract Draft

Randomly self-assembling copolymers have repeatedly demonstrated great promise toward eliciting therapeutic immune responses, and specifically for autoimmune diseases. However, their mechanisms of action are not yet fully understood. Many factors such as pH and temperature can affect the nature of the self-assembly of copolymers thus influencing immunogenicity. We tested the hypothesis that factors such as pH and temperature can be manipulated to optimize the self-assembly of copolymers thus eliciting a more desirable immune response through shifting the nature of the T-cell response. This was implemented by analyzing the effect of pH, temperature, and sonication on the stability of the copolymers dissolved in solution. According to our results, increasing heat and pH were the most effective methods to optimize the formation of fibers. We next plan to use these copolymer solutions to vaccinate mice and use methods like ELISA to analyze the nature of their immune responses. This will help us gain a better understanding of the ideal steps to be taken to increase the solubility of these copolymers while simultaneously optimizing their immunomodulatory actions. Through exploring different methods to increase the solubility of copolymers in solution, we can work to better understand how to optimize the immunogenicity of copolymers in vaccinations.

Sharing through Science

I really enjoyed last week’s chalk talks and definitely learned a lot. One of my favorite parts of chalk talk week was seeing how everybody’s research was so different yet somehow shared connections to another peer’s project. It just goes to show how science has many varying forms but there is always a common thread amongst it all.

I really enjoyed hearing about Ulises’ research concerning inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). I never realized how aggressive of a form of cancer IBC is and how high the mortality rate is for those diagnosed with IBC. Many times doctors misdiagnose those with IBC, so often times the cancer is not caught until much later stages. Furthermore, a lot of information is left to be elucidated concerning the pathways leading to the onset of this disease and thus the best mechanisms required for its treatment.

Ulises is looking to better understand the role of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in IBC. PAHs are organic compounds released into the environment through processes such as the burning of coal and are known to be carcinogenic. Thus Ulises’ hypothesis is that an increase in concentration of PAH exposure to tumors will lead to an increase in the proliferation of these cancer cells. This information can help better understand some of the mechanisms behind IBC in order to eventually lead to better development of therapies and drugs for patients diagnosed with this disease.

I’m looking forward to continue learning more about my peers’ research in the weeks to come. It will be exciting to see what else my peers learn during the poster session in three weeks.

The Excitement of a Day in the Lab

I wake up by 8:00 every morning just in time to get my morning coffee, making sure to start my day off with a kick. Depending on the day I will either head to French Family Sciences for a B-SURF meeting or I will head straight to my lab in CIEMAS.

I will then either begin my day in the lab with a paper relating to my lab’s research or I will get straight to business, working on research.

My day-to-day research varies immensely depending on what my mentor, Nikki, is working on for the day. Many of her studies involve working with mice to study immune responses elicited by various copolymers, so we spend a lot of time prepping vaccines for the mice and running ELISAs to analyze the elicited immune responses. I spent much of the first couple of weeks shadowing Nikki as she taught me some of the various techniques her research entails and as each week passes by I get opportunities to do more and more techniques on my own.

Once it gets to be around lunchtime I take a coffee break and usually work on some additional papers. There are a lot of terms and processes concerning the immune system and also many studies being conducted geared towards learning how to best manipulate the immune system to help a wide variety of patients. So these papers are of great help to keep up with the latest ongoing research and discoveries!

After my coffee break I will perform other laboratory tasks whether it is continuing to run ELISAs, prep vaccines, or measuring out various ratios of amino acids to put in the peptide synthesizer. One day I even got a chance to go to Chapel Hill to analyze one of our samples on their TEM.

After a busy day I will wind down for the night and make sure to get a good night’s sleep for another exciting day in the lab.

Peptides Galore

Autoimmune diseases are very challenging to treat. They lead a person’s body to go into a self-destruction mode, killing many perfectly healthy cells in the process. Furthermore it is often times difficult to pinpoint the reasons for the onset of these illnesses consequentially causing immense difficulties in treatment. Several decades ago, researchers created a synthetic randomly self-assembling peptide, glatiramer acetate (GA), which was soon discovered to aid in the reversal of multiple sclerosis (MS).

Decades later, researchers are still trying to pinpoint the exact mechanisms in which GA is able to help MS patients. By discovering these mechanisms it can lead to the development of more drugs of this nature to increasingly lead to improved therapeutic immune responses.

In the Collier Lab, I have gotten a chance to learn about synthetic randomly self-assembling peptides, from how they are created in a peptide synthesizer to techniques (such as ELISA) to test the immune responses these peptides elicit.

However, one of the challenges of working with creating vaccines with these peptides is that due to the nature of their structure it is difficult to stop these peptides from precipitating out of their solvent, which can lead to challenges in ensuring the reliability of the administration of the vaccine. Therefore, one of the goals I will be tackling will be to devise different methods to optimize the solubility of these peptides.

I am excited for the coming weeks and am eager to keep learning more about these self-assembling peptides. I have learned so much these past three weeks and can’t wait for what else is in store.

The Artistic Side to Science

From a young age, Dr. Collier has always been curious. This curiosity was not solely confined to the sciences but ranged many fields including writing and art. In fact to this day, Dr. Collier’s wide range of interests have provided him with a unique perspective on the sciences: science is an art.

Dr. Collier’s interests led him to attend Rice University where he pursued a degree in materials science. During his first year of his undergraduate career, Dr. Collier enrolled in a design class where he was able to use his creativity to complete a variety of projects. Dr. Collier later began research for the Mikos Lab where he not only applied his knowledge in the sciences to various projects but also used his creativity to take advantage of every opportunity presented, thus taking his research to the next step. Dr. Collier knew he had a passion for creating from a young age, but he soon discovered that through pursuing a career developing medical materials he would be able to use his skills for the betterment of people.

However, before Dr. Collier went to attend graduate school he pursued a manufacturing career with Motorola due to his willingness to go out of his comfort zone to explore other fields he was curious about, thus further expanding his perspectives on the world.

Dr. Collier is currently a professor here at Duke where he continues to encourage all members of his lab to take a creative approach to conducting research. Dr. Collier not only takes great value in his research but also cares deeply about the personal development of all members of the lab. During our interview, Dr. Collier pointed out that behind every published paper, there is a person with a story.

Throughout my interview with Dr. Collier, I was reminded of the value of trusting the pursuit of my curiosities. After hearing about Dr. Collier’s personal journey with the sciences I have gained a unique new perspective of the sciences.

Start of a New Chapter

A little less than a year ago, I was filled with anticipation as I was about to begin my first year here at Duke. I was starting my college career and was filled with so many questions and expectations as how the year would end up turning out. Looking back at my first year, I realize how much I have learned. From learning how to do my own laundry to the fundamentals of linear algebra and everything in between, I have realized how much learning can be done in such a short period of time.

Fast forward to this summer and once again I am filled with so much anticipation over the amount I am about to learn with the start of another new chapter: this time in research. I have never had the opportunity to do research before and am more than excited to discover what it is all about. This summer I will be working in the Collier lab, a biomedical engineering lab, with my mentor, Nikki Votaw. The Collier lab does research with self-assembling peptides to aid in therapeutic immune responses. Nikki has already taught me so much and I can’t wait to see where this summer takes me.

I hope I come out of this summer not only gaining confidence working in a research environment but also learning how to start posing my own scientific questions and improving my critical thinking skills. Furthermore, I hope this summer is a chance to be able to take my learning to the next level beyond the classroom experience.