Interns at Work: Harrison Westgarth ’17 National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD
“I have a variety of new lab techniques under my belt, a revitalized understanding of the scope and importance of medical research at a federal level and a newly discovered penchant for formulating my own research questions.”
Briefly describe your summer research experience.
This is my second summer participating in a summer research program. Last year, I did research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. That lab is affiliated with Dana’s Angels Research Trust (DART), the organization that also funds my current work at the NIH. DART was founded by Phil Marella ’81 and his wife, Andrea, to promote research and understanding of the rare congenital lysosomal storage disease, Neimann Pick Type C. NPC has no cure and mostly afflicts children, although a number of drugs are currently undergoing various clinical and lab trials. As specified by DART, my work focuses on researching this fatal disease, so much of my efforts have been devoted to further understanding the mechanisms governing the disease at a cellular level and the efficacy and side effects of a number of potential treatments.
What attracted you to the program?
Apart from the prestige that the NIH commands in the world of medical research, I found myself drawn to this program this summer due to my desire to continue on the research journey I started last year. The opportunity here at the NIH allowed me to not only pursue additional NPC research and continue the dialogue I began at Einstein, but also to experience a new lab environment, a new city and the intricacies that come with working for a large government-funded scientific organization.
How does your work this summer apply to your studies at W&L?
First and foremost, my experience will make me a much better biologist, both in and out of the lab. Being devoted to lab work Monday through Friday over the course of the summer will help me refine and learn many lab techniques that are directly transferable to lab work at W&L. Additionally, weekly lab meetings and presentations are incredibly helpful in improving my level of understanding of both medical research and the fundamentals of biology itself.
Describe a typical day
I usually arrive at the lab anytime between 9 or 9:30 a.m., dictated solely by the whims of D.C.’s much-loved metro system (currently the subject of intense maintenance initiatives). My morning work is most often specified by my principal investigator and sees me either staining or processing tissue or helping to harvest and treat fish embryos to assess the effects of new experimental therapeutic drugs. After lunch, the afternoons are usually spent continuing the morning’s procedures or, occasionally, shadowing our lab’s nurses or physician on rounds to visit patients on campus for our lab’s clinical drug trials. Days end anywhere between 4:30-7 p.m., depending on the needs of the investigators or my own personal luck in performing a procedure. Life in the lab is as glamorous as it is flexible.
Did any particular courses or faculty members help prepare you for the experience? How so?
Professor Ayoub’s genetics class and lab has probably had the most impact in preparing me for my experience in summer research. Many of the techniques learned in her class have been directly applicable in my own personal work and gave me a solid basis upon which to build my skill in the lab to its current state.
What was the most interesting or unexpected aspect of your experience?
The most unexpected aspect of my experience has been the sheer size and scope of the NIH. As a student of science, I had previously encountered the NIH in literature. However, I always assumed it was a single large building, the National Institute (singular) of Health. Actually, NIH stands for the National Institutes (plural) of Health, and it is a very large campus of 50-plus buildings, each devoted to a specific field of medical research. The site of the NIH is comparable in size to that of a large college campus, equipped with its own buses and a metro station. I was quite naïve to think I would be commuting to a quaint little institute in Bethesda day after day.
What key takeaways or new skills are you bringing back to W&L?
I have a variety of new lab techniques under my belt, a revitalized understanding of the scope and importance of medical research at a federal level and a newly discovered penchant for formulating my own research questions — to dive in and start trying to push forward on the fringes of knowledge, even when I’m very much still learning.
What advice would you give to other students interested in this program?
Be passionate, talk to your professors, apply early and make connections. There are very few people at W&L who aren’t willing to lend a helping hand in the application process for this exact program and other summer research programs similar to it. I have found that our biology department has been a crucial part of my success in engaging in two consecutive summers with this program, and I am eternally thankful for their support. Furthermore, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, apply to multiple programs (this one included) and never be too proud to have a number of backups. Finally, to those of you who might eventually also find yourselves in this program, be open and willing to ask for help from others in the lab. They know you’re there to learn, and you’ll never gain anything from sitting passively on the sidelines waiting for someone to notice you’re struggling.
Describe your experience in a single word.