As an intern working in the lab at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Department of Immunology, Cierra turned her love of Chemistry and Biology into an experience that will solidify her career objectives. For this student who thought it would be interesting to see what working in a lab was like, “It made me realize that I don’t want to go into chemical engineering, but now I really want to pursue research in a medical lab.”
Already applying to Pitt, Penn State and Chatham, Cierra plans to turn her intern experience and City High education into a science degree first and then on to a graduate degree that will equip her for a future career in medical toxicology.
Cierra came to City High from Pittsburgh Classical Academy and quickly adapted to this new trimester arrangement (“That way I can’t forget what I learned earlier in the year!”). She has also taken for-credit, college-level classes at CCAC on the Northside while at City High.
She’s always dreamed of being a doctor because she wanted to help people, but the thought of possibly losing a patient made her think her skills were better spent behind the scenes.
“I always excelled in the sciences,” she recalls. “I went from biochemistry to microbiology (study on a cellular level) to toxicology (to study of effects of poisons on an organism),” so her 13-week internship was the perfect place to explore this interest.
In the research labs at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, Cierra worked closely with mentor Jennifer Taylor, Ph.D, an instructor in the Department of Dermatology. Their chemistry was instantaneous. “She picks up on things very quickly,” noted Dr. Taylor. “She’s very dedicated and always wants to do more. Her technique is flawless and she has the skillset for this career direction.”
The Cancer Immunology Lab is dedicated to developing vaccines for melanoma principally, but also renal (kidney) cancer. The lab work is demanding, but Cierra was up to the task. She was required to do extract bone marrow from mice to grow dendritic cells, (a potent activator of protective immune responses), which could then be profiled under various experimental conditions.
She isolated the dendritic cells in a Petri dish from the starting bone marrow cells and then cultured them further with or without the different hormones to determine changes that would occur. “The dendritic cells are the center of vaccines we develop for clinical trials,” said Dr. Taylor. “They are really the starting point, the orchestrators of T-cell responses, which are actually the cells responsible for acting against the tumor cells and killing them.”
According to Dr. Taylor, “Right from the beginning, Cierra’s cell count and my cell count matched. It’s very rare to find somebody who can do that so quickly. It usually takes far more time working with the microscope to do this accurately and reproducibly. She was very good at this.”
Cierra is quick to return the compliment. “Dr. Taylor took her time with me – definitely explained the process – she made sure to explain things step by step. Eventually, there were moments when she got where she could trust me and thought I could do this by myself.”
At the lab, Cierra became comfortable using a microscope and centrifuge in addition to advanced techniques like a flow cytometer using lasers to look at various markers that are present on cells and real-time polymerase chain reactions (PCR). Real-time PCR targets an RNA molecule during testing and looks for a reaction in the cells in real time, basically watching the effectiveness of the drug or therapy as it affects cancer cells or immune cells, such as dendritic cells.
Dr. Walter J. Storkus who heads up the research lab had this to say about Cierra, “She was absolutely wonderful learning complicated techniques. Cierra did real time PCR side-by-side with Dr. Taylor and she got it the first time.” Dr. Storkus added, “What she learned in a week is amazing… we have had some masters students come in and not be able to master in 6 weeks what she had done in one. She’s a natural for this. So going forward she should have a lot of confidence in her abilities.”
So, she’s a natural. And who knows? She may be the future in finding new drugs and new treatments for cancer. And to think it all started in the research lab and at City High.