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Cheyney University Students Kick Off Their Biomedical Research Journey at Wistar

September 13, 2021

Last February, Wistar welcomed the inaugural group of Cheyney University students enrolled in the biomedical research and training program co-developed in 2020 by the nation’s first biomedical research institute and the nation’s first historically black college and university.

“As a biomedical research instructor and someone who loves science, I firmly believe that the way to teach it effectively is to have the students do science. I am really excited to give these students an authentic research experience at Wistar.”

This statement by Dr. Kristy Shuda McGuire, dean of Biomedical Studies at Wistar, summarizes this initiative, which was recently launched to provide students with hands-on, real-world experience in the lab and introduce them to the many career paths in biomedical research.

To maximize the potential of the Wistar – Cheyney alliance in research and business development and support other Wistar workforce training programs, the Institute has assembled a Workforce Advisory Council including experts from the local biotech arena and academia. The Council helps forge and oversee new connections, match students with internship opportunities, and advertise the programs, expanding Wistar’s presence in the Philadelphia life sciences community.

The strategic collaboration between Wistar and Cheyney will provide career development opportunities, preparing students for future jobs in science while they earn their degrees.

“At Cheyney University, we constantly look for new partnerships that can create more opportunities for our students,” said Dr. Nicole Santerre, assistant professor of biology at Cheyney and one of the instructors of the course. “Wistar seemed like it was a partnership that was meant to be. It was very exciting to work on this project because it was built with our students in mind the whole time.”

The Cheyney students were the first to learn in Wistar’s brand-new teaching and training lab, a 1,500-square-foot education suite featuring open bench space, a tissue culture room and an instruction area equipped with smart TV access.

In this setting, students have taken the Biomedical Research Methods course, which represents the first half of the curriculum, learning cutting-edge techniques under the mentorship of Drs. McGuire and Santerre.

“Our approach to training the students is to let them work independently to learn how to follow a protocol, while we are there to answer questions, give directions and correct any techniques,” said Dr. McGuire.

Whether hard-core science enthusiasts with a future in the lab or aspiring physicians who want to learn more about research, all the students were excited to be part of this program and think it has made a difference for them, each in a unique way.

Abimael Bellinger, a sophomore in biology, has been attracted to science since he was a child. He thought he wanted to go to medical school; but his experience at Wistar is helping him see that research is an area he wants to explore as a career, and he’s now considering taking the M.D./Ph.D. route.

“Undertaking lab work at your college is not the same as actually performing the experiments in a real lab. At Wistar, we had an opportunity to connect what we read in books with how to apply it,” said Abimael. “I also love that we’ve been taught independence: We learned together and worked side by side but each of us did our own experiments — it was a very individualized experience.”

Amber Young is a senior in biology and in the pre-medicine track. She wants to be a psychiatrist and realized that she needs to be in the know on the latest research, so the Wistar course gave her a chance to explore the scientific world.

“Every student should take this course to get one-on-one experience and find out their capabilities in science,” Amber said. “I’ve always been fond of science because I love exploring and there’s always something new to discover,” she added. “I know there’s a world full of opportunities for me in science but I was nervous about working in a lab. I thought I was going to mess something up, start a fire… Until I came to Wistar and the instructors patiently encouraged me, made me feel comfortable and pushed me forward.”

“When I teach students science in the classroom, I try to talk the least amount possible and instead to ask questions to get them talking and engaged,” said Dr. Santerre. “This approach works in the lab as well. When students ask questions, we ask back: What do you think you are supposed to do? What are you trying to achieve? They eventually come up with answers on their own.”

“I had never had lab experience before and was anxious,” added Lauren Ballard-Coleman, also a biology major in the pre-medicine track. “But I realized I shouldn’t be nervous because this course takes an intimate approach and lets everyone move at their own pace. I really appreciate that and I can now breeze through a protocol on my own!”

Lauren wants to be a physician. It’s her drive and passion and what she feels is meant for her. She knows that the experience at Wistar gave her useful knowledge and will help her stand out on her application to go to med school.

Zainab Sulaiman, a junior majoring in biology, will honestly say that she wasn’t cut out to do research in a lab but to instead work with patients. Yet, she welcomed the opportunity to participate in this course because she’s interested in learning more about research and thinks it’s important to enhance her knowledge on how to work in a lab.

“I learned that I could go into research, not just work on the floor with patients,” said Jamila Roper, a senior biology major in the pre-nursing track. “This experience revealed to me that I would be very well suited to work in a lab and that I also have other options besides becoming a nurse.”

Students did not just learn techniques, they explored real research taking place now in the lab of Dr. Maureen Murphy, who studies the impact of some p53 genetic variants on cancer risk in people of African descent. Working with normal cells and cells that contain one of these variants, students were tasked with investigating the differences at the DNA, RNA, protein and cellular levels.

“Wistar also arranged to have guest speakers of African descent talk about their own journey, how they got where they are, some of the hardships students may encounter both academically and socio-economically, and how they can overcome and succeed,” said Dr. Santerre.

“I’m very excited that some of the students will pursue 12-week research internships in Wistar labs this summer,” said Dr. McGuire. “Some will come back to Wistar in the fall, joined by new students, for the Life Science Innovation course, where they will explore key concepts related to intellectual property, regulatory affairs, and commercialization.”

“Some of the students in this inaugural group had been in a lab before and were more confident; some had never been and were not. It’s been amazing to watch them learn and see how much confidence they’ve gained in just a few weeks. At the end of the course, you couldn’t tell who was who,” Dr. Santerre added. “They were all very excited to be at Wistar and can’t wait to take the knowledge they are acquiring onto wherever they go in the future.”