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Summer at MIT:
A transformative CO-OP 

Kiana Williams, HHMI EXROP Participant



October 1, 2018

By Erika Rush, CASTLE Media Relations Assistant

Kiana Williams is a senior at Drexel University studying chemistry with a concentration in Biochemistry & minors in Biology and Business Administration. She is the president of the Drexel’s African Fusion Dance Team and the secretary of Drexel’s West Indian Student Establishment. Kiana spent this past summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) participating in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Exceptional Research Opportunities (EXROP) Program. The program's mission is to make science education more inclusive through developing undergraduate leaders from all backgrounds. Financial and mentorship support is given to rising undergraduate students interested in becoming the next generation of scientists.

Drexel's Associate Professor in the Biology department and co-Director of Drexel's Center for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning Excellence (CASTLE), Dr. Jennifer Stanford recommended Kiana to the HHMI EXROP program. Candidates who are nominated and recommended by faculty proceed to the application portion of the selection process. The application requested essays about Kiana's past research experience, career goals, and research interests. Accepted students into the HHMI EXROP program receive paid living accommodations on the campus their study is being conducted at and a stipend to help cover their expenses. Participants are asked to rank their interest on the available research projects and available research teams are paired with students respectively.

Kiana’s prior research experience included working as an intern for the Rhythm Experience and African Culture Trial (REACT!) for University of Pennsylvania’s Institute on Aging of the Perelman School of Medicine. The study’s goal was to enhance the neurocognitive function of senior citizens ranging from 60 to 80 years old by exposing them to exercise and education.The purpose of this research was to explore whether brain health, fitness levels or quality of life improve as a result of participating in these activities three times per week for six months. Some of Kiana’s tasks included creating and instructing educational activities, monitoring heart rate during dance sessions, and checking blood pressure before and after each physical activity session. Kiana has also served as undergraduate research assistant for the Addison group in the Department of Chemistry at Drexel University. She started out as a work-study student during her freshman year and a Maryanoff Fellow during the following summer working independently under Dr. Anthony W. Addison investigating methods to synthesize N-alkylated benzimidazoles for use as ligands for transitional metals. She currently still works here and has since synthesized and characterized novel benzimidazole compounds and discovered optimal temperatures and media to promote the success of the chemical reactions.

Kiana’s current research interests include inorganic chemistry, neuroscience, and schizophrenia. Based on Kiana’s research experience, educational focus, and career goals she was selected to work with researchers at the Drennan Lab in MIT’s Department of Biology through MIT’s HHMI EXROP program. She completed research with a graduate student focusing on Structural Biology and Enzymology. The study was entitled "Investigation of the Mechanism of Allosteric Specificity Regulation in Human Ribonucleotide Reductase". She worked alongside the Principal Investigator, Professor of Biology and Chemistry Dr. Catherine Drennan, and Rohan Jonnalagadda, graduate student with MIT's Drennan Research & Education Laboratory, who acted as Kiana’s MIT mentor and research supervisor. She learned practical aspects of being a researcher: how to transform DNA inoculate cell cultures, purify protein, measure enzymatic activity and other scientific methods. The study may have future ramifications that may aid in discovering drug targets for cancer therapy. 

Kiana also participated in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP Bio) while she was at the university this summer. MSRP Bio allowed Kiana to network and meet with professionals in the medical and science fields from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School. The MSRP Bio program organized weekly working dinners on Mondays and Fridays where she was able to hone professional networking skills, learn from 5-minute chalk talks and give general laboratory technique presentations based off her newly acquired research skills. MSRP Bio also provided a weekly “Methods & Logics” course that focused on scientific and critical reasoning skills.

In connection to the HHMI EXROP program, Kiana was awarded a spot in Harvard Medical School’s inaugural Medical Science Training Program (MSTT) Application Prep Program (MAPP). This was thanks to being a MSRP Bio recipient. She was assigned a second-year Harvard Medical School MD/PhD student, Catherine Newman to serve as her summer mentor. Through this relationship she was able to narrow down her post-graduate education plan. Kiana plans to obtain an MD degree. Being matched with a medical student mentor, Kiana was able to get valuable firsthand advice to prepare her for medical school admissions and entering the job market. She plans to attend medical school after she completes a gap year. She hopes to become a pediatrician or pediatric surgeon and someday wants to run her own medical office.

Kiana's advice for other students interested in doing research is to start early. “Don't wait until your senior year,” and that if you do not find the opportunities you want, you have to "create your own opportunities!” For example, use your work-study funding to work with faculty. If you are interested in research that a faculty member is conducting, then you should reach out to them to learn more about their work. Make sure you learn scientific techniques, even if you have to do it on your own. She also stressed the importance of taking care of yourself holistically so you do not overwhelm yourself. Sometimes you have to let go of some commitments in order to achieve your primary objectives. Last, do not limit your options; look for rewarding experiences in any part of the world.