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Rohan Nainan

STEM School of Thought: Summer Isn’t for Slacking, It’s for Igniting Scientific Passion

Rohan Nainan has kept a list of every prescription or over-the-counter drug he has ever been given by his parents or a doctor since he can remember. He is not a particularly sick 17-year-old, just someone interested in knowing how drugs work to combat illness. Nainan’s goal is to attend pharmacy school so this curiosity can eventually lead to a career. He feels that all of this is possible because he was accepted into Wistar’s High School Summer Fellowship Program in Biomedical Research.

“I’ve always enjoyed science, but I’d never had the opportunity to apply my scientific skills to conduct scientific investigations or take part in science fairs,” said Nainan. “My public high school lacks adequate supplies for us to carry out biology experiments, but the opportunity to be a part of the Fellowship Program changed everything. The experience taught me how to carry out research experiments and strengthened my enthusiasm for science. I now believe nothing can deter anyone from pursuing their goal.”

Wistar’s High School Summer Fellowship Program in Biomedical Research provides an opportunity for Philadelphia-area high school students to boost their understanding of biomedical research and theory by working alongside Wistar scientists in research laboratories. Mentors help students apply skills and knowledge they learn during the Program to make the connection between lab experience and their academic studies.

“The first week of training, I learned all the protocols and procedures about what to do and not to do in the lab. I was placed in the lab of Dr. Paul Lieberman who studies Epstein-Barr virus with mentors Drs. Nadia Tikhmyanova and Kate Beishline. They brought me up to speed with the project and explained what specific experiments I would carry out. But mostly they actively supported me and gave me confidence in my work.”

Nainan learned the basics, including pipetting, western blotting, extracting RNA and DNA, carrying out gel electrophoresis, and polymerase chain reactions (PCRs). He acquired skills that integrated him into the everyday workings of the lab, including participating in lab meetings and gaining exposure to different facets of research projects.

The Lieberman lab studies Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which can stay latent in the body even without the immune system knowing about its presence. One particular focus of the lab is to study how EBV goes lytic, or enters a phase of the virus’s lifecycle when it replicates within the host cell and produces a new generation of virus. In this phase, EBV is more vulnerable and the lab is testing a drug that causes a reaction in the virus, and can eventually initiate apoptosis (programmed cell death).

“I worked with seven to nine compounds to see if they could induce the lytic cycle. The whole lab is testing 40,000 to 50,000 compounds, so my work was just a small piece of a much larger picture,” Nainan said. “The Lieberman lab would like to make the virus go into a lytic cycle so the virus isn’t hidden inside the cell. Then the lab can target EBV through drugs that cause apoptosis, and translate that into future therapies.”

Upon graduation from the Fellowship Program, Nainan took this experience and entered local science fairs. His projects were based entirely on the work he did at Wistar. Through immersing himself in the research and reading all the articles published by the Lieberman lab, he fine-tuned his projects and placed first in regional and state science fairs at the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science and second at Carver Science Fair under the microbiology category.

“Wistar’s Fellowship Program is at the core of everything that I have accomplished, especially as a public-school student who hasn’t grown up with the resources other students have,” said Nainan. “This program keeps you a step ahead. I’ve shared my experiences and the protocols I’ve performed with college students and they were amazed. What I experienced at Wistar, even college students haven’t done. Wistar’s Fellowship gave me practical knowledge on how to carry out research protocols and helped build a strong foundation in applied sciences. You should apply to this program if you have a passion for science.”

Wistar’s High School Summer Fellowship Program in Biomedical Research is generously funded by the Christian R. & Mary F. Lindback Foundation, the Gray Charitable Trust, GlaxoSmithKline, and the Helen D. Groome Beatty Trust, through BNY Mellon Wealth Management, whose sponsorship and commitment, since inception in 1994, is a testament to the Program’s continued excellence bringing innovative STEM programming to students with the possibility of training next generations of young scientists.