Fourteen of Illinois' best and brightest undergraduates spent the summer of 2018 as research fellows at Mayo Clinic as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF) program. The Alliance's commitment to this educational program continues to be a popular, competitive opportunity for Illinois students.
Omar Kashow, now a senior in the Bioengineering department at Illinois, spent his summer as a SURF at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Here is an inside look into Omar's 10-week SURF experience.
Mayo Clinic principal investigator/mentor: Debabrata Mukhopadhyay, PhD
Department: Cancer Research and Nanotechnology
Q: Why did you apply to the SURF program?
Omar: While schoolwork deserves most acclaim for the knowledge of biology and chemistry I've come into, being immersed in a lab setting granted me the melding of that information into real application. I became entranced with the self-directed potential to impact something greater than just classrooms. I wanted to be part of a greater research impact, and also was excited to refine my research focus. Mayo Clinic resonated integrated clinical practice, research and medicine, and seemed to demonstrate a smart collaboration between the clinical realm and the research world that I knew I wanted to direct myself toward in the future.
Q: Can you briefly describe your SURF project at Mayo Clinic over the summer?
Omar: The summer was an intense, engaging, and wonderful time in Jacksonville. I had exposure to various research focuses within cancer, neurology, and more through weekly seminars given by different principal investigators. The project I chose consists of studying and formulating gold nanoparticles for targeting tumors, specifically in pancreatic cancers. Initially, most of the focus was on the characterization and optimization, as I synthesized gold nanoclusters with targeting peptides and various drug concentrations. Near the end of the summer, we moved into testing the therapeutic efficiency of our formulations in pancreatic cancer cells, before potentially moving on to mouse models.
Q: What was one of your favorite or most memorable SURF experiences?
Omar: An old neighbor from Jacksonville visited me toward the end of my internship, specifically for the presentations on the last day. The second to last day, he actually came to our lab, was given a tour from my PI, and went out to dinner with a couple more lab members. It was an amazing closure to the whole program.
Q: Are you involved in research in any capacity at Illinois? If yes, will you be continuing your SURF project or be working on something similar when you return to campus?
Omar: I have been involved in research for the past two years on campus at Illinois. I joined a research lab working on the synthesis of “intelligent” biomaterials to better comprehend and hopefully regulate transport phenomena, important to human sustainability. It has been exciting to make novel hybrid materials to control molecular interactions at work, in hopes to eventually treat various diseases. In one major project, I fabricated hydrogels of different elasticities to observe how stiffness and the addition of different cell adhesion proteins could affect neuronal growth and function. While relevant coursework at the time greatly heightened my knowledge of cell-level principles, this lab setting at Mayo Clinic started showing me the powerful application of what I was learning.
Q: What are your future career plans, and how did the SURF program influence them, if at all?
Omar: I am aspiring to be an MD, specifically a primary care physician. I would love to go to medical school in Chicago but am open to most schools within Illinois or on the east coast as well. I hope to potentially work some years as a physician either overseas in my father's homeland or in the heart of a city like Chicago to care for under-represented populations.
As I’m currently involved in research on campus, I was expecting this internship to better refocus what sort of research interests me. Being immersed in a clinical lab setting, I personally saw my time here greatly increase my desire to have patient interaction in my future career. I understood our lab was always working toward eventual patient care, but I started craving that direct relationship as I spent many days bench side. What I finally saw, however, was the promise of a position that combined medicine and research. Mayo Clinic taught me how important it is to collaborate between many disciplines and keep a constant communication between the clinical and research worlds, as that bridge can overcome the greatest of challenges. I hope to involve myself in a similar research setting upon entering medical school.
Q: Do you have any advice for future SURF program participants?
Omar: Your goals will simply remain ambitions if you do not stay level-headed on your current journey. Stay dedicated to continuing all your leadership positions, organization involvements, volunteer work, and most importantly, your educational endeavors. Through all this, you will be prepared when the opportunity arises to make your dreams into a reality.