Summer 2009 Internship: NHLBI's Laboratory of Molecular Immunology, Bethesda, Maryland
Vital stats: Junior at Stanford University majoring in biology.
Investigative focus: This was Elizabeth Wong's second summer working in the lab of Warren Leonard, M.D. "I'm able to jump into the research much more quickly, using some of the same techniques I learned last summer," Ms. Wong said. "This summer, I have been investigating the effect of interleukin-21 (IL-21), a powerful immune cell hormone, on cytokine expression by dendritic cells." Dendritic cells are important for the activation of the immune response, and it has been shown that IL-21 can inhibit dendritic cell activation and maturation.
"My project has two main links to disease treatment," said Ms. Wong. "First, since dendritic cells are key to the immune response, inhibition of their activity by IL-21 may lead to a compromised immune system. Second, IL-21 has been found to have anti-tumor activity, but also has been linked to autoimmunity, so further illuminating its biological activity may have implications for the treatment of cancer and autoimmune diseases."
Thinking like a scientist: Ms. Wong usually works about nine hours per day in the lab, sometimes longer, depending on the day's experiments. During a typical day, she conducts experiments, analyzes data, and discusses results with her lab mentor, Edwin Wan, Ph.D.
Dr. Wan, a postdoctoral scientist, has been an "excellent teacher," said Ms. Wong. "He's shown me not only the technical aspects of laboratory work but also the critical thinking and the intellectual vitality that goes behind the science. He's taught me to think like a scientist."
Outside the lab: Ms. Wong enjoys singing; playing the piano, flute and viola; and spending time with family and friends.
Her role models: If Ms. Wong had to choose a celebrity to do her internship, it would be Bobby Flay from the Food Network. "He's very passionate and exact in his culinary art, and so in a sense, he reminds me of a scientist," she said. "I also like how he is an honest, down-to-earth celebrity."
Wong's scientific hero is the newly appointed National Institutes of Health (NIH) director, Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. "As a student scientist and a Christian, I admire Dr. Collins not only as a leader in genetics research, but also as a scientist who holds that science and Christianity are not mutually exclusive," she said.
Dreaming big: If Ms. Wong could have one breakthrough discovery, what would it be? "This will probably sound very cliché, but I would be honored to discover an effective cancer treatment," she said. "Several of my relatives have suffered from cancer, in a variety of forms. It has been profoundly saddening to see healthy family members become suddenly and drastically ill because of it. The reality that this kind of suffering continues on throughout the world motivates me to find a cure."
Future directions: "I'm still in the process of figuring out my career direction," said Ms. Wong. "I am trying to decide whether to attend medical school or graduate school after college. I would love to treat patients in the clinical setting, but I am also fascinated by bench research [Hyperlink to the bench research entry in the ARRA glossary]. I'm definitely interested in immunology. Immunology is a fast-growing, fascinating field, and it has powerful implications for many areas of clinical treatment. Whatever career path I choose, I know that my experiences here at the NIH will strongly impact my future."
By Sheila Walsh