Training for the Battle Against Childhood Cancer

Mykaela Salvacion, COL ‘ 25, Tucson, Arizona

This summer, I have had the incredible opportunity of working in the Maris lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. From countless hours in the cell culture room to dozens of Western Blots, I have been able to refine my wet lab skills. At the same time, I have been challenged intellectually by the complexity of cancer that the brightest minds work together to understand. By shadowing my principal investigator in his clinic, I have also had the incomparable experience of seeing how the research done in the lab directly translates to providing children with the therapies and help they need to fight their cancer.

The Maris lab investigates the mechanisms ruling the development and progression of neuroblastoma– a cancer that typically arises in early childhood, with a median age of diagnosis of 22 months. Our current project focuses on patients with high-risk neuroblastoma, which involves a grim prognosis: high-risk patients have a 50% 5-year survival rate, and of these patients, a relapse in cancer brings this survival rate down to only less than 10%. Our lab takes a multitude of angles to combat these dismal survival rates. I have been working under a Penn graduate student whose project seeks to identify the role of the MYCN oncogene, which is amplified and highly expressed in about half of high-risk neuroblastoma, in allowing tumors to evade the immune system. Under her guidance, I have learned the essentials of cell culture, flow cytometry, and Western blot while building my knowledge of cancer biology and immunology.

The best part of my research experience has truly been the people I’ve had the honor to work with. My mentor has invested so much in my learning and growth as a scientist, constantly ensuring that I understand the theory behind our experiments and encouraging me to become more confident and independent. Everyone else in the lab–from the graduate students to lab technicians to other undergraduates–has been nothing short of welcoming, providing me with a robust support system. Learning from their unique experiences has helped me gain insight into how I want to approach my own path toward medical school, a career in pediatric oncology, and possibly a career as a physician-scientist.

Finally, I am beyond grateful to have the opportunity to work under one of the best pediatric oncologists in the world, Dr. John Maris. I was able to shadow Dr. Maris’s clinic and meet three patients with neuroblastoma. I witnessed firsthand how neuroblastoma presents itself in such different ways in every child, from a 4-month-old baby to a 13-year-old rock star lacrosse player. Undoubtedly, I will continue to shadow him as often as I can to learn how to utilize my empathy, cultural understanding, and scientific intellect to do what is best for the patient and for the battle against cancer.

My experience in the Maris lab will allow me to continue fostering my dream of becoming a pediatric oncologist, and I am excited to see where this journey will take me. I thank Penn Career Services for the resources they have provided for me–without them, this would not have been possible!

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2022 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.

By Career Services
Career Services