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Undergraduate Student Christina Austin Awarded Research Fellowship

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“My mom is a Chatham alumna,” says Christina Austin ’17, “but that didn’t factor into my decision to come here. Chatham was actually one of the last schools I looked at. But when I came to visit, I saw that I could connect with people and have a close mentorship with professors in a way that I might not be able to do at a larger university.”

Austin, who is majoring in Biology, had hit the nail on the head. It was an email from one of those professors – Dr. Pierette Appasamy – that would lead to Austin pulling in research dollars, a feat that’s not always easy for faculty members to accomplish, let alone an undergraduate.

It started this spring when Dr. Appasamy learned of a research internship with the Allegheny Health Network Lupus Center for Excellence from the Office of Career Development. Dr. Appasamy forwarded the information to Austin, then a student in her Cellular and Molecular Biology class. “I immediately thought of Christina Austin when I heard about the internship opportunity,” says Dr. Appasamy. “It seemed perfect for her interests in hands-on work in biomedical research.”

Once Austin was accepted into the internship, the program director suggested that she might be a good candidate for the Gina M. Finzi Memorial Student Summer Fellowship Program, which funds students to conduct medical research under the guidance of a mentor. She was.

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For eight weeks, Austin worked in the lab, isolating white blood cells from blood samples that had been collected at West Penn Hospital. She stained the cells with substances that, when run through a machine, turn fluorescent where a certain protein is present. The goal of the study was to compare how this protein appeared in patients with lupus, with other autoimmune diseases, and in a control group of healthy individuals. Austin’s work may one day be used to help diagnose lupus, today an arduous process that often takes years.

Austin’s internship primarily focused on research, but she also worked on the clinical side. “I was trained to obtain consent from study participants,” she says. “I went through the IRB (Institutional Review Board) packet with them, and if they consented, we drew their blood that day. I liked that aspect of the internship a lot.”

In fact, Austin – who plans to go to medical school – liked it so much that she is considering seeking out a clinical internship for next summer. “I’d love to travel abroad and work at a clinic of some sort,” she says. “I’ve talked to classmates who worked in hospitals in Belize or Puerto Rico and had really good experiences.”

Outside of the lab, Austin is a Chatham Scholar, Vice President of Communications for the Black Student Union, a R.I.S.E Mentor, and starting this fall, she will also be a resident assistant. She offers this advice for incoming students: “Make sure you go to recitation and go to all the study groups before a test. They can be a lifesaver when it’s a topic you don’t understand. And get to know your professors and let them get to know you. They’re looking out for you, throughout your time here.”

She knows whereof she speaks.