Chemistry is hard. Really hard. But that doesn’t deter Claire Mepyans.
“It’s like trying to explain how most things work,” said the senior from Fairfield, Conn. “It’s a combination of math and critical thinking … and our professors push you to try your hardest.”
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This passion and determination led Mepyans ’19 to be the first student selected for a new internship at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center in New York, and the opportunity to work with researchers at one of the most prestigious cancer care and research centers in the world.
Established by Trustee Emeritus Paul J. Schupf, LL.D. ’06 and administered through DavisConnects, the two-summer internship creates an immersive experience in the cell biology and genomic lab of Dr. David B. Solit, director of MSK’s Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Center for Molecular Oncology in Manhattan. In a setting like this, an aptitude and appetite for the demands of scientific research are key.
“Working on a research project in any field … making progress, failing and succeeding, all of that is really important in science, in medicine, and in lots of other areas,” said Jeff Katz, professor of chemistry. “Going through that endeavor is something that’s really hard to do in a classroom setting.”
For the MSK internship, students are encouraged to undertake an independent line of investigation in the cancer center’s molecular oncology lab. Working in one of the top research labs in the world was intimidating at first, said Mepyans ’19, “but everyone in the lab was very welcoming and willing to help.” Her internship also allowed her to interact with everyone from medical doctors to Ph.D. post-docs to recent graduates.
Mepyans’s MSK mentor, Hannah Wise, a Ph.D. candidate researching bladder cancer, emphasized the importance of gaining lab experience. “It’s hard to know if you want to spend years working in a lab in graduate school if you have little experience with it,” she said. “Working in a lab helps students get excited about science and biology, and it’s critical they have that excitement when they consider a Ph.D. or other lab work in the future.”
Mepyans did just that—no surprise to her Colby mentors. “She’s inquisitive, hardworking, and independent,” said Katz, her advisor. “We expect them to know a lot, retain a lot, and be able to perform under the normal testing situations.”
Chemistry students must learn volumes of material and how to apply that material to new situations, he said. Mastering instrumentation and lab skills are essential, too. “There’s a breadth of what you have to do in different areas of chemistry. It’s a rigorous discipline to get a hold of.”
Rigor, high standards, discipline—Mepyans embodies all three. She came to Colby eager to be premed and plunged in. Her first summer at Colby she landed a collaborative hands-on research experience between Colby and five other institutions. She progressed through general, organic, and physical chemistry; she paired with Katz on research projects; she mentored other biochemistry students.
A DavisConnects selection committee chose Mepyans from 14 applicants for the MSK internship, where she was assigned to work with Wise. Mepyans spent her first summer learning the molecular biology lab techniques and, for the first time, working with cells, performing mutagenesis to change mutated DNA into a correct sequence. Wise was impressed with her respect for protocol and willingness to ask questions, an important trait, she said, since small things can have big impacts on the outcome of an experiment.
“Our second summer together was even better,” Wise reported via email. Mepyans continued to pose insightful questions and became independent, she said. The Colby intern helped investigate the function of the gene KDM6A, which is commonly mutated in bladder cancer, employing techniques such as reverse genetics and high-tech CRISPR genome editing.
Her results were mixed. “A lot of my stuff at MSK didn’t work,” Mepyans admitted, “but it was still helpful research because it takes a lot of time to do all these things. Results are results,” she said, understanding now the importance of trial and error in the scientific process. “When I first came to Colby I was not okay with failure.” She knows better now. “You’re not always going to get it right. It’s okay. It’s normal.”
Mepyans didn’t spend all of her time in the lab: she undertook an environmental studies Jan Plan at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences; a SEA (Sea Education Association) semester aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer sailing the Caribbean with a humanities focus on island cultures; and the DavisConnects’ Premed Academy, where she job shadowed a child psychiatrist and other medical professionals.
Ultimately, she hopes to unite her love of chemistry and medicine in a clinical setting. But not just yet. First, she’ll spend two years further exploring public health as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, Africa, doing HIV and AIDS education with adolescents.
Undaunted, Mepyans is prepared for whatever lies ahead. “It’s important to try hard and do your best,” she said. “And if you’re doing that, people around you will respect you.”