Students and interns contribute to understanding of diseases

Dr Sabrina Koh and Therese Featherston have both been involved in the GMRI’s summer student programme. Their respective experiences helped shape their career aspirations.

In addition to the GMRI’s staff and a PhD student, we take on summer students and interns every year to undertake research. In this article, we explain our summer student and intern programmes, and talk to 2 past students about their experiences.

Our summer student and intern programmes benefit everyone involved. The GMRI benefits from valuable research results and students and interns leave with valuable research experience. Some of the summer students are inspired by their experiences to pursue an academic career.

The GMRI’s executive director, Dr Swee Tan, says the findings from the summer student and intern programmes ‘have the potential to revolutionise the understanding and treatment of cancer and other diseases.’

A privilege to work with ‘these very fine young people’

Dr Tan says the GMRI team is privileged to have worked with the students and interns they’ve had through their programmes.

‘It has been a very rewarding experience to work with these very fine young people,’ Dr Tans says.

‘They are wonderful human beings who are intellectually capable, immensely curious and have a remarkable capacity for hard work.

‘We at the GMRI have made a conscious decision to put aside some of our time and resources to nurture these young people who, afterall, are our future.’ 

Forty summer students so far

The summer student programme was introduced in 2013, taking on 5 or 6 students each year. A total of 40 students have completed the programme since it began, with some returning for further summer studentships. We are very grateful to Sir Roderick and Lady Gillian Deane for their sponsorship of the programme.

Each student is given a project in the GMRI’s current areas of research, which include cancer, fibrotic conditions and vascular birthmarks. These are based on the role of stem cells and the renin-angiotensin system in disease and health.

Interns delve deeper into GMRI research

The GMRI’s intern programme was started in 2019. Three students have completed the programme so far, including Jazmean Williams from Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA. Jazmean and another intern, Claire Luke-Krishnan, have submitted manuscripts of their research for publication. They’re also presenting their work at the upcoming International Society for the Study of Vascular Anomalies online conference in May.

Depending on a student’s availability, our intern programme spans between 3 and 6 months, outside of the summer break.

In this article we talk to 2 former summer students, Dr Sabrina Koh and Therese Featherston, and find out how their experiences have shaped their careers so far.

An opportunity to flourish

Dr Sabrina Koh and Therese Featherston were involved in the GMRI’s summer student programme 3 times, between 2015/2016 and 2017/2018.

Both Sabrina and Therese feel their experiences at the GMRI, including the close mentorship they received from staff members, have shaped who they are and what they’re doing today.

Fostering a passion for biomedical research

For Sabrina, being part of the summer student programme helped foster a passion for biomedical research.

Sabrina is currently a first-year junior doctor at Wellington Regional Hospital, at the start of her career as a doctor. Her experiences with the GMRI sparked an interest in pursuing a career in academic surgery.

Read about Sabrina’s first summer student experience over the summer of 2015/2016

Working on different projects at the GMRI opened Sabrina’s eyes to the potential that exists to improve the quality of life for individuals with conditions like Dupuytren’s disease, cancer and vascular birthmarks.

Results of Sabrina’s research at the GMRI have been published, so far, in 5 papers in international peer-reviewed journals. Sabrina has also made 4 presentations at international conferences and received the 2017 International Duypuytren’s Award. She has a further paper submitted for publication, currently under review, and is preparing a manuscript for her project on port-wine stain (a type of vascular birthmark) with the team at the GMRI. Sabrina is also presenting her work at the International Society for the Study of Vascular Anomalies online conference in May.

Read about Sabrina winning the 2017 International Duypuytren’s Award

‘These experiences, in conjunction with the excellent mentorship I’ve received from the team (particularly Dr Tan), have contributed to shaping me into the person I am today,’ Sabrina said.

‘Over this time, I have been challenged to think critically and question the unknown.

Experiencing the life of a biomedical researcher

For Therese, undertaking 3 summer studentships opened her eyes to the world of biomedical research. She has carried her experiences through to subsequent research, where she continues to focus on cancer and investigating new approaches to its treatment.

In the time Therese was involved with the GMRI, she completed an extended essay for her International Baccalaureate Diploma as a Year 12 student. She has published 3 papers in international peer-reviewed journals (with another paper under revision), and presented at 4 international conferences.

Last year Therese completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Science with First Class Honours at the University of Otago. She has recently been awarded a University of Otago Doctoral Scholarship and will begin her PhD in the Department of Pathology and Biomedical Sciences later this year at the University of Otago’s Christchurch campus.

‘The summer studentships gave me an opportunity to experience what it is like to have a career in biomedical research. The experience provided me with skills that I have carried through my post-graduate study, such as carrying out experiments and writing up scientific manuscripts.’

Read about Therese’s experience in the summer student programme

Read how Therese first connected with the GMRI

A unique and challenging experience

Both Therese and Sabrina are quick to praise the professional nature of the summer student programme, and to express their gratitude for their respective experiences.

‘The GMRI summer student programme is extremely well set up,’ said Therese. ‘I believe it provides incredible opportunities for undergraduate students to experience what research is really like.

Therese is also thankful for the opportunity she has had to present her research at international conferences.

‘These skills are hard to come by as an undergraduate student, so I am extremely grateful that the GMRI gave me those opportunities.’

Sabrina also praised the programme and the staff members involved. ‘I would highly recommend the opportunity to do a summer studentship programme at the GMRI,’ she said.

‘It is a well-supported programme, while allowing you to have the independence to flourish and take ownership of a project — a unique experience for medical students.’

Fresh perspective a valuable tool for prospective students

Following their respective experiences with the GMRI, Therese and Sabrina have advice for future summer students.

‘Take every opportunity that’s offered to you, as often they are hard to come by,’ Therese said.

‘Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially in the research meetings. Although it can be quite daunting, your fresh perspective on the research is valuable.’

Sabrina encouraged students to step out of their comfort zone.

‘Ask questions and seize every opportunity. Research is about challenging the known and venturing into the territory of the unknown. Let your imagination wander!’