Envisioning My Future as a Researcher

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2021 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Hikaru Kotake, COL ’24

This summer I was able to continue my research at the Bugaj Lab in the Bioengineering Department, thanks to the Career Services who covered my living expenses. I first joined the Bugaj Lab April of this year, but this summer, I was able to work full-time and devote my time learning lab techniques and building my knowledge on optogenetics. Working in this lab has helped me envision my future as a researcher, which consists of perseverance and pursuing curiosity.

My lab works with optogenetics, which involves the repurposing of naturally existing light-sensitive proteins to control a protein of interest inside of the cell. These proteins can then be stimulated with light, which allows us to control the protein’s activity with high precision. Using these tools, we can better dissect the way diseases can alter cellular processes and in turn drive a disease state. Specifically, my project aims to develop a novel tool to investigate how an oncogene affects a cell’s ability to interpret extracellular signals. While the tool I am developing will further our ability to investigate important biological questions, our research can also result in translational applications to develop novel treatments for non-small-cell lung cancer.

This summer, I learned to engineer and construct an optogenetic tool consisting of Cryptochrome 2 (Cry2) and the functional domain of a signaling effector protein. Upon blue light stimulation, the Cry2 domain clusters and in turn allows us to control the activity of the fused signaling effector domain. This tool will now allow me to investigate molecular mechanisms that will further our understanding of how oncogenes reshape signaling in healthy cells. As this was my first time building an optogenetic tool, I was eager to see how my protein worked in cells. Constructing my designed protein was not simple, since it was a large plasmid and hard to clone – I was constantly pushed back as my PCR did not work. However, I quickly learned how to troubleshoot different factors and optimize my experimental design. I was ecstatic when I was able to finally make the construct and to see the cells fluoresce red as they expressed the protein I designed and built.

Nevertheless, after transfecting the cell with the plasmid to observe its function, the construct did not work. Even so, we found new observations which shifted us in a new, better direction. With the help of my supportive mentor, I started re-designing the construct and re-evaluating the experimental design. Currently, I am still striving to create the optimal protein. I thoroughly enjoy this challenge and am looking forward to what this project will lead me to.

Being a first-generation STEM student, this summer allowed me to better prepare myself for the academic path I am taking. In addition, with the help of my encouraging mentor and lab mates, I feel more confident about being able to thrive in a lab environment.

Overall, this summer was enriching in that I was able to learn and deepen my understanding of biology and the lab setting. Furthermore, I was able to realize my true enjoyment of science and the work that researchers contribute.

Without this experience, I would not have been able to confirm my interest in this field and gain confidence in what I want to pursue. Although this summer is just a start, I will definitely build from this experience to continue with research in the future.

By Career Services
Career Services