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Research Experience Propels NIDCR Summer Intern to Intel Finals

Media: The Inside Scoop


April 2008

Photo of Benjamin LuBenjamin Lu, a 2007 NIH summer intern in NIDCR’s Oral and Pharyngeal Cancer Branch, was a finalist in the recent Intel Science Talent Search (STS).  The Intel STS is the most prestigious science competition for high school students in the U.S.  Mr. Lu, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., was one of 40 finalists out of more than 1,600 contestants.  Each Intel finalist received scholarship funds as well as a new laptop computer.  Mr. Lu was honored for his research on the Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) genome.  His research focused on genes that may be involved in the pathway between the Gq-coupled muscarinic receptor type 1 and the AP-1 transcription factor in the nucleus.  Such fundamental research could one day illuminate possible targets for cancer therapies.  NIDCR recently spoke with Benjamin Lu about his experience as a summer research intern.

How did you decide to apply for a summer internship at the NIH?

( see Fellowships and Internships for High School and College Students

Well, I need to frame this a little bit.  Both my parents are scientists and for a long time I didn’t really want to do science because, being contradictory, I didn’t want to do the same thing.

Then a couple of years ago my dad was diagnosed with lymphoma.  I was really concerned and so I started studying all I could about cancer.  And eventually he got an experimental procedure at NIH and that’s what saved his life.

And I wanted to use the knowledge I learned about cancer to help people.  So I applied to Dr. J. Silvio Gutkind’s lab (in NIDCR’s Oral and Pharyngeal Cancer Branch), because he’s a cancer specialist.

Was this your first experience in a lab and is research something you see yourself doing as a career?

Yes, it was my first lab experience.  I thought it was great.  It is definitely on my list of things I could see myself doing for a living.

What was the best thing about working in a lab?

I think it was the first step  -- designing the experiment.   I never really had the chance to do that.  In science class they tell you “here’s what you need to do” and then you write a report about it.  And you don’t really get to design your own experiment and carry it through.  That was really fun.

I think it was the first step  -- designing the experiment.   I never really had the chance to do that.  In science class they tell you “here’s what you need to do” and then you write a report about it.  And you don’t really get to design your own experiment and carry it through.  That was really fun.

I also had a great mentor – Dr. Robert Dorsam.  And I’m very thankful to him for guiding me through this valuable experience.

What was the finding from your research?

That’s interesting because our study was less of a hypothesis-driven experiment and more open-ended.  My study was based on work initiated by Dr. Dorsam.  He had used an RNAi-based high throughput screening assay, which tests every single gene in a Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) genome – all 18,000 genes – really quickly instead of doing it by hand.  That way, we could see a list of genes that might be involved in the pathway between our cell surface receptor and our transcription factor. 

And from this, we got a list of genes and began to characterize the pathway that links the surface to the nucleus.  And we found a number of unexpected things.  One finding was a protein called trio.  It’s a really strange protein.   It’s a guanine nucleotide exchange factor but it also has a kinase domain and is quite a large protein.  That was one of the most interesting things we found and it turns out it’s in our pathway.

We’re thinking that we may be able to use it as a target for cancer drugs in the future, once we improve our understanding of the pathway.

Is there anything about working in the lab that wasn’t so much fun?

There was a two-week period where nothing wanted to work.  It was basically two weeks of testing everything to make sure it was working properly and trying to figure out what was going wrong.  It wasn’t fun, but I guess it is part of doing anything right. 

Did you recommend the lab experience to friends?

Definitely.  Actually, one of my friends, who is a year below me, is applying for a summer internship at NIH. 

You used your research experience at NIDCR for the Intel competition?

Yes.  As a result of my summer research at NIDCR, I basically had everything I needed to write a research paper.  And I submitted that to Intel.

There are about 1,600 students who apply.  Just to be able to apply is an accomplishment.  It’s something to be very proud of.

Have you decided where you’re going to college?

Not yet.  I’ve applied to a number of schools and have also applied for scholarships.  I’m waiting to hear.

Note:  Since the interview, Benjamin Lu has been accepted at MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Caltech, Columbia, University of Maryland, and University of Chicago.


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This page last updated: August 04, 2014