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Gemstone Thesis Conference - The End of 3 Years of Research

It feels like just yesterday I attended thesis conference as a freshman, I had just been placed on my research team and was excited...but also pretty nervous about the next three years of research. I wrote a blog post in April of 2018 announcing my Gemstone team and now here I am in April of 2021 having successfully presented and defended our thesis!

Due to the pandemic, our thesis conference was held online. But a great plus to this is that my family was able to tune in from Saint Martin, France and across the country to support me!

I felt so blessed to have an amazing support system that shows up every time!

What is Gemstone Thesis Conference?

If you've been following me for a while then you've probably heard me talk about Gemstone a lot! That is because it is a four-year program within the Honors College and so I have been involved since my freshmen year. The program brings together undergraduate students and teaches us about research and then allows us to propose our own project ideas which we work on the next three years.

At Thesis Conference, all the senior team's present their research and then receive feedback on their written thesis from their discussants. I am just so proud of my team to have made it to this point, despite all the hurdles and the crazy space we are in we were able to write our thesis (over 100 pages!!), present it to our friends and family, and defend it to our experts.

About Our Research

Our team's main research question was "How do we treat allergies by inhibiting mast cell degranulation?" To explain this briefly, the symptoms we get from allergies occur when mast cells degranulate as seen below, this degranulation is a release of histamine, cytokines and other enzymes that will circulate and cause symptoms. We wanted to know if we could stop the mast cell from degranulating as a way to treat allergies. Our idea was to be "proactive rather than reactive"

Team Cascade

As with most concepts in biology, this idea is more simply said than done. In reality, the pathway that leads to degranulation has proteins that are expressed in other cells too. We decided to acknowledge these limitations and test the theory of inhibiting the pathway. We did this originally with a mast cell cultured line and then with protein modeling once we had to move online.

Learning about the ups and downs of research

Probably one of the biggest take-aways from this whole research experience is that research is a process filled with ups and downs! As an undergraduate team, our team was really figuring out things as we went. We had to read through many literature papers to try to gain and understanding of the topics of immunology and cell signaling pathways.

I am especially proud of the determination I showed here - I felt really intimated on my team and I was also in the lowest biology course compared to my team. I remember our whole project proposal was written before I finally learned in my biology classes about cell signaling. It was important to me throughout the process to always find ways to contribute to my team and help advance our research.

A question we got asked during our presentation was how did we adjust our project once the pandemic started? The truth is we were attempting to shift our project even before the pandemic.

We started with a cell line and after initial success culturing them, we faced dead batch after batches of our cells.

This was a time-consuming and expensive process of trying to get a viable cell line going so that we could start our experiments.

While we began exploring other options, the pandemic occurred and we were forced to find a way to produce data for our thesis without being in the lab. Again, I am proud of the resilience that my team showed! We decided we would model the inhibitions we had hoped to do in our cell lines using protein modeling software on our computers. This was a huge change, we had to go back to the literature, completed form a new methodology and do it all with less than a year to thesis.

It was especially challenging to handle this while studying for the MCAT. Idealy, if our experiments had worked our senior year would have been spent working on the thesis and a bit of data collection - instead we did all our data and wrote the thesis in our senior year. Saying it now, I realize just how incredible it is that we were able to do this!

Equity & Impact

As of the class of 2021, all Gemstone themes must incorporate themes of equity within their project and their thesis. This is something I am so passionate and was a huge advocate for. Presenting on the topics of racial disparities in allergies felt like such a full circle moment!

I first began to explore the growing problem of health disparities during my first semester of Gemstone, our first assignment was to propose a research project on a topic of our choice. As I scanned through articles on PubMed I came across an article entitled “Born Too Soon: Premature Birth in the U.S Black Population” which discussed how Black babies were at a higher risk of being born prematurely and the consequent health risks that followed. I spent the rest of the semester diving into research that looked at environmental factors, psychological distress, genetics, and socioeconomic factors and quickly realized the complexities of research on health disparities. Unfortunately the program wasn't emphasizing a focus on these kinds of research questions.

This changed through the years as we began advocating for the importance of incorporating equity into the research that we do! These projects may look different than the typical basic-science project most teams do - however that doesn't make them any less valuable. I am so proud of all the students who have worked with staff to help incorporate these changes and the small part I had to play in these impactful changes to the program!

What research means to me

Being in the Gemstone program has been a huge honor and has taught me so much! I know that after graduation I will stay closely involved as an alumni. Gemstone taught me the power of collaboration when it comes to solving today's research questions.

Research to me is a tool to do good in this world, it can be used to help us advance society's most urgent questions! I learned that while doing research, especially while on a long-term project like this one, it is important to stay focused on your "why" - why is this research important and how will it help and impact others? Keeping these questions at the forefront of my mind as an undergraduate researcher made me feel so passionate about continuing to develop my research skills and use them in my future career as a physician.

Looking to the future

The Gemstone program introduced me to research and how I can use research to work towards solutions to the health problems I am passionate about. My goal is to be a physician-scientist and advocate. I am very inspired by physicians that treat patients, conduct research, and make an impact on their communities. I plan to pursue MD and MPH degree and dedicate my work to improving health care for low-income and minority communities and to focus my research on decreasing racial disparities in maternal and fetal health.

I am thankful for the years of growth and the knowledge that Gemstone has given me!

Thank you to everyone who has supported me along the journey!

This is only the beginning,



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