City of Hope Internships Give Students World-Class Research Experience

Students stand in front of giant letters that spell HOPE.

It’s been quite the summer research experience for four Pomona College students who embarked on an intensive ten-week medical science internship at a leading human disease treatment and research center less than an hour away from campus.

Luis Estrada ’22, Michelle Garcia ’22, Joanna Rodriguez ’21 and Fred Zucule ’21 are participating in a unique research internship at City of Hope, a global institution working on cutting-edge cancer, diabetes and infectious disease research in Duarte, California – a unique internship opportunity for rising sophomores, juniors and seniors who are underrepresented and/or low income.

Supervised and mentored by an individual senior scientist at City of Hope, the students read and mark up dozens of scientific articles, conduct their own lab experiments, review their results, and prepare to defend their capstone research presentations. The students must be ready to answer a volley of questions from City of Hope scientists and researchers.

For Garcia, a first-generation college student, it meant reading 50 different journal articles about the Streptococcus Pyogenes Cas9 (SpCas9) protein, which is a part of CRISPR-Cas9 – a new tool with wide applications including genomic editing and genomic screens, she explains. Although she’s only entering her sophomore year, she already knows she wants to major in molecular biology and mathematics.

“In my time here [at City of Hope], I have learned the ins and outs of cancer research and the different approaches taken by different labs,” she says. The lab she’s a part of at City of Hope is interested in using the CRISPR Cas9 complex to learn more about its own function. 

The opportunity to produce individual research and receive mentoring by top-tier scientists at one of the world’s leading biomedical research institutes is made possible by a unique partnership between Pomona College’s Quantitative Skills Center (QSC) and City of Hope’s Beckman Research Institute. The QSC provides funding for students’ on-campus housing, travel and living stipend.

Travis Brown, the director of the QSC, manages the partnership for the College and says the presentations are impressive.

“It’s cutting-edge research,” he says. Students also learn about securing grants for this kind of work and are exposed to discoveries made in the lab. 

For Zucule, a molecular biology major, as well as experiencing “lab life,” he’s gaining insight into graduate-level research. Many U.S. internships require U.S. citizenship, but City of Hope is full of international people, making it a perfect fit for Zucule, an international student from Mozambique. “They really gather together the talent from all over the world to tackle the problems of cancer,” he says.

Adam Bailis, professor of molecular and cellular biology at City of Hope and the associate dean of professional development, oversees the program, now in its fourth year of partnership with Pomona.

In 2013-14, Bailis, an expert in genome instability associated with aging and radiation, was involved in teaching Pomona College Molecular Biology Professor Tina Negritto’s upper-level courses. (Negritto was one of his first Ph.D. students at City of Hope.) He found the Pomona students “exquisitely prepared,” he says.

He also took note of the caliber of the College’s academic cohort programs in mathematics and science.

“I was just knocked out by how impressive the group of students was, how beautifully Pomona had tailored the academic structure to support them in a way that was unique.”

Bailis was inspired to create a summer research cohort at City of Hope to offer Pomona students full immersion in medical science.

Thanks to this experience, Estrada, a molecular biology major from Washington, D.C., knows he wants to pursue a career as a professor or research scientist focusing on biomedical applications.

Estrada, an incoming mentor in the First-Generation and/or Low-Income (FLI) Scholars mentoring program, says the internship has confirmed his passion for research. He’s working on defining molecular mechanisms in the biogenesis of miRNA-146a, a small RNA sequence that downregulates inflammation and cell proliferation.

“I’ve learned that science takes patience and collaboration. It takes both because certain days are filled with experiments that may last hours that fail to produce viable results. However, scientists need to know how to be patient in those processes while being resilient and collaborate with others to deduce the errors in those experiments.”

The City of Hope experience can be intense, says Pomona’s Brown, who provides workshops for City of Hope staff about working with underrepresented minority students and the unique challenges these students face in college. But for students like Estrada, Pomona has grounded their experiences at City of Hope in a tangible way.  

“Pomona’s science courses and labs helped me the most because of the useful background knowledge and skills needed to understand and perform lab techniques, presentations and much more.”