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K-State Today

October 13, 2016

Undergraduate research helps Ortega find opportunities to advance, refine career goals

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

Raquel Ortega

A Kansas State University student from Wichita spent her summer conducting life-changing oncological research at St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. 

Raquel Ortega, senior in chemistry, participated in the St. Jude Pediatric Oncology Education program. In the 11-week program, students preparing for careers in the sciences can gain biomedical and oncology research experience through short-term training in either laboratory research or clinical research. Participants are trained in an academic environment created by the interaction of committed scientists, research-oriented physicians and postdoctoral fellows.

Ortega worked in the hospital's Danny Thomas Research Center under the mentorship of Eric Enemark, an associate faculty member, and Justin Miller, a postdoctorate, in the structural biology department. She and her mentors worked closely with helicase, which is the protein heavily involved in DNA replication.

"My project for those 11 weeks was to determine whether this protein was active and could unwind DNA in a chimeral form," Ortega said. "I was involved in the whole process from induction of the bacteria with the construct to the harvesting of the protein. I then purified the protein as well as conducted the unwinding experiment to determine activity."

Enemark was pleased with Ortega's work.

"Raquel was extremely enthusiastic and relished every opportunity available in the lab and in the program," Enemark said. "These experiments that she worked on will help us to understand a fundamentally important part of cell division. Raquel did a great job with these challenging experiments. It was a real pleasure to have her in the lab."

Ortega's time at St. Jude was about more than just the research.

"My favorite aspect of being at St. Jude was the working environment," she said. "The children were the top priority, and that could even be seen in the basic science labs. It is the personification of translational medicine. Pediatric Oncology Education students would attend talks every lunch by someone from the St. Jude faculty, and their passion for helping the children could be seen as well as their firsthand accounts about how some of their research is implemented in trials at St. Jude. It was an incredible environment to experience."

Ortega credits her undergraduate research experiences at Kansas State University for preparing her for the work at St. Jude.

Through the university's Developing Scholars Program, Ortega has been able conduct research since she was a freshman. As her passion for research has grown, she found herself searching for more opportunities to investigate the topic she's passionate about: oncology. By working in the lab of Stefan Bossmann, professor of chemistry, Ortega said she had gained many advantages.

"My work in this lab, in conjunction with the support system all the lab members have offered me, was the springboard for all my achievements that were to follow," she said. "My work in the lab gave me the competitive edge. More importantly, it allowed me to discover my passion for research in addition to medicine."

In her recent research, Ortega has been exploring methods for drug delivery of cancer medication. This involves synthesizing a nanoparticle that could potentially hold and transfer an anti-cancer drug to provide a more effective release to a tumor site.

Ortega said Bossmann has had the biggest impact on her ambitions and career goals.

"He saw a researcher in me before I even know it was something I wanted to do," she said. "His support and mentorship have helped me realize my current career goals."

Ortega, who was an honorable mention for the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship this year, began her science career at a young age and in an unorthodox way.

"My interest in science began when I was in elementary school," she said. "Growing up in a Spanish-speaking home meant I did not know any English upon entering kindergarten. Because I could not understand my teacher or my classmates, not only was I not learning but I disliked the whole experience of school. Fortunately, my cousin, Lorena, taught me English in an unconventional way. Lorena loved biology and would first explain phenomena like why leaves were green in Spanish, and then repeat that in English. By fourth grade, I was at the English comprehension level of my classmates and I knew I wanted to be a scientist."

Because of her experience with the St. Jude Pediatric Oncology Education Program, Ortega has decided to apply to a one-year postbaccalaureate program to conduct research at the National Institutes of Health.

"My experience at St. Jude has solidified my desire to be involved in research after I finish my undergraduate degree," she said. "My goal is to earn a combined Doctor of Medicine and doctorate in molecular and cellular physiology. I hope to one day work at a research hospital and conduct research on diseases of the human brain."

Ortega was among the undergraduate researchers who discussed their research and how it affects their future at SPARKx Talks: The Secret Ingredient for a Fulfilling Life, a part of Kansas State University's SPARK — Students Promoting Advancement of Research at K-State — Week, Oct. 10-14.

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