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Biology graduate is performing biomedical research at the National Cancer Institute

Two years after she graduated with a B.S. biology, Melissa Kirk ’05 is finding out that the research she conducted as an undergraduate at Lafayette was pivotal to the work she is doing now at the National Cancer Institute.

Last spring, Kirk received an Intramural Research Training Award from the National Institutes of Health, which allows participants to conduct a two-year research program. Kirk is working in the radiation oncology branch of the National Cancer Institute through May 2008.

Kirk is the latest in a long list of recent Lafayette recipients of prestigious national and international scholarships and fellowships for undergraduate and post-graduate study. For information on applying for scholarships and fellowships, contact Julia A. Goldberg, associate dean of studies, (610) 330-5521.

After applying for the fellowship, Kirk contacted several principal investigators to express her interest in conducting post baccalaureate research. She met one who had open positions in his lab.

“Fortune and good timing probably played a role in my selection, but I also believe that my undergraduate research experience in conjunction with my interest and enthusiasm for pursuing a position in cancer research had a defining influence,” she says.

The Intramural Research Training Award provides opportunities for recent college graduates to spend two years engaged in biomedical research side-by-side with leading scientists at the National Institutes of Health. Most participants develop and design their own experiments with the help of a mentor.

In the radiation oncology clinic, Kirk collects and processes biospecimens, such as urine, plasma, and serum, from patients receiving treatment for brain cancer and analyzes growth factors related to their disease progression.

“My laboratory is very dynamic; everyone has interesting projects directly or indirectly related to improving radiation therapy for the patients in the clinic,” she says. “I have had the privilege of completing my own project related to the discovery of reliable methods for the quantification of tumor biomarkers in patient biospecimens, which I presented and will be submitting for publication.”

Kirk plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. track after finishing her work at the National Cancer Institute.

“It encompasses my interest in intellectual investigation while still having a direct impact on the improvement of the well-being of others,” she explains.

Kirk believes her honors thesis conducted under the guidance of Shyamal K. Majumdar, Kreider Professor Emeritus of Biology, gave her a leg up in her current work. Her honors thesis explored the cytotoxic effects of an anticancer drug used for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia.

“I believe that I came to the National Institutes of Health with more research experience than the average post baccalaureate,” says Kirk. “The techniques I learned from that experience – cell culturing, proliferation, and viability assays – carried over to my current work. Yet, I also believe that every laboratory course I completed at Lafayette significantly contributed to my scientific abilities, in particular the ability to problem solve, analyze data, and design appropriate and relevant experiments.”

She also cites the lecture course Evolutionary Genetics as having taught her valuable skills necessary for advanced research. She learned molecular biology techniques and how to interpret and critically analyze scientific papers, “which are essential since reading and understanding the contributions made by other researchers in my field has important applications to my own work.”

In addition to Majumdar, Kirk believes Lorraine Mineo, retired general biology laboratory coordinator, helped prepare her for the challenges of advanced research.

“I will always have a fondness for the professors with whom I had the opportunity to work closely in the biology department,” she says. “Dr. Majumdar’s high expectations gave me the intellectual stamina to pursue a research position at the National Institutes of Health. His meticulous teaching of laboratory techniques also gave me the technical precision to succeed in the research field.

“Additionally, I don’t think I could have gone very far in my research career without a solid background in basic science and for that I can give credit to all of the professors of the biology department. In particular, Dr. Mineo, who, during my teaching assistance experience, taught me all of the fundamentals of biology pertinent to my present work and to a career in medical oncology which I wish to pursue.”

Kirk presented her honors thesis work at the 81st Annual Meeting of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science in 2005. She is a past recipient of the Willis Roberts Hunt Biology Prize and was a member of Sigma Xi, the international honor society for scientific and engineering research. She also coauthored an article with Majumdar and biology graduate Nicholas Fotiadis ’05 in Journal of Chemotherapy.

“I believe Lafayette gave me the best possible experience to prepare me for the research field,” she says.

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