A Step Towards a Future in Cancer Research

Adherent cells that were transfected with DNA plasmid encoding green fluorescent protein (GFP), achieving transfection efficiency of ~90-95% in one of the lab’s experiments.

An undergraduate internship experience by Lim Mei Chee

Having lost my grandfather and cousin to cancer, I have long vowed to myself that one day, I will help in the quest to find a cure or to improve the situation. As a Biomedical Sciences student, I was given the opportunity to learn more about how our body systems work.

It occurred to me that so many things in our body could go wrong and it is of utmost importance that our body carries on what it does best: homeostasis. And when homeostasis is not maintained, cancer can be one of the consequences. After talking to a few people who are involved in research work, I realise I will never truly understand how to combat cancer unless I involve myself practically.

A fume chamber, freshly graduated pipettes, and sterilised apparatus and gloves made me understand how important it was to avoid all kinds of contamination…

In the summer of 2013, I spent approximately four weeks at the cancer research lab supervised by Dr. Wong Kah Keng at the School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). The lab studies B cells and focuses mainly on non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

As an intern, I was under the guidance of my supervisor’s PhD student, Ms. Loo Suet Kee. In the first few days, I was watching her every step. She was carrying out western blots and staining cancer cells obtained from patients in the hospital, as well as culturing certain lines of cancer cells. Once I got used to the techniques, I was allowed to practise them myself.

The complexity of molecular signaling within an activated B-cell upon encounter with its antigen. Four common pathways could be triggered i.e.,  the NFAT, mTOR, MAPK/ERK  and NF-kB pathways. Illustration by KK Wong

The complexity of molecular signaling within an activated B-cell upon encounter with its antigen. Four common pathways could be triggered i.e., the NFAT, mTOR, MAPK/ERK
and NF-kB pathways. Illustration by KK Wong

I was able to perform Western blots and cell culture techniques firsthand during my stay. What may have seemed minor to me before, became my point of focus when I carried out the techniques. A fume chamber, freshly graduated pipettes, and sterilised apparatus and gloves made me understand how important it was to avoid all kinds of contamination and how easy it was to make mistakes. It also told me how crucial it was to be meticulous in order to get accurate results, which may help save someone’s life one day.

Aside from practical work, my supervisor taught me how to analyse scientific papers and the different types of graphs and bar charts that were too technical for me to understand before. He also taught me bioinformatics.

Now, I know how to get scientific information such as the sequence of DNA and amino acids for a particular gene or protein online. It amazes me how much information is available in a few clicks but it also makes me realise how little I know.

Other than the techniques mentioned above, I have also learned how difficult it is to conduct scientific research from scratch. Not only does it take a lot of time and effort, it costs a lot as well. Perhaps the most important lesson I have brought back from my internship is to have patience and perseverance in the process of obtaining an accurate result.

For example, my supervisor and his postgraduate student conducted a viral transduction process in order to inhibit the transcription of a particular gene in cancer cells. I was given the honour of testing if the transduction process worked by running a western blot to detect the absence of the protein encoded by this gene.

Representative Western blot results in an experiment that I assisted.

Representative Western blot results in an experiment that I assisted.

After two days of western blotting, I was disappointed when the results showed that the transduction was not successful. However, when I talked to my supervisor about this, he did not seem surprised. Instead, he told me that this often happens. With a positive attitude and sparing no time, he looked through the protocol so he could improvise and repeat the whole procedure. It amazes me how someone can be so positive even after putting so much effort into something only to find out that it did not work. At that moment, I realised that the failure in carrying out experiments is a part of the journey. A reporter once asked Thomas Edison, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” and he answered, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps”. I did not truly understand what he meant then, but I understand now. Perseverance is part of the job.

I certainly understand that the main question is my own passion. I have always loved science and more specifically, the human body and all its complexities. I knew I wanted to become a researcher but did not know what it would entail. After having worked in a cancer research lab, I do; I can say that it only reaffirmed my dream of one day becoming involved in cancer research.

About the Author

Lim Mei Chee is a second year (going on third year) undergraduate student studying Biomedical Sciences at the University of Oxford, UK. This summer, she will be carrying out a cancer research project under the supervision of a research group in the Nuffield Division of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, Oxford. In her spare time, she enjoys watching documentaries as well as attending Zumba and swing dance classes. Find out more about Lim Mei Chee by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile: http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/meichee