How I Became a Biochemist: One thing leads to another

How I Became a Biochemist: One thing leads to another

How I Became a Biochemist: One thing leads to another

Hello, my name is Jinay Patel and I am a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge. I am studying biochemistry with a specialization in oral cancer cells. I was a research intern at Amino Labs a few years ago. I have been interested in how the cells in the human body work and everything in between for a long time. Biotechnology is an interesting, diverse, and fast-evolving field. Let’s explore the possibilities! I also share some tips and insights for high school students at the end.

How did I come to my biology enthusiasm? I grew up in a small town in British Columbia called Cranbrook, where my favourite things to do with friends were sports and outdoor fishing. My interest in sports led to an interest in wanting to learn more about the human body and how it works. As a result of this, I was interested in learning more about science and sparked an interest in the field of biochemistry. 

In high school, I was unsure of what to do after graduating. I found myself taking a wide variety of electives to see what would interest me. One of the electives I took was AP biology since I have always been interested in learning about the human body and how it works. I thought it would be an interesting class to learn about it in depth. This ended up being valuable for me as it guided me to study biochemistry in college and university. In college, I took a cell biology course that sparked a desire to study medicine. One thing led to another, and a new field of study caught my eye: biotechnology. Biotechnology is using the machinery of microorganisms to produce useful products. As I continued with school, I got to learn how biotechnology is becoming entwined in almost every field of science and is aiding in the advancement of these fields, including medicine, which I found quite fascinating. 

In the field of medicine, biotechnology has been a valuable tool. Let’s take an example of biotechnology increasing patients’ health: in the case of diabetes, one of the most common diseases in the world. It is caused when patients are not able to transport glucose into their cells because their pancreas does not make a protein called insulin, or the cells are not responding to insulin. In people suffering from type 1 diabetes, their pancreas does not make insulin so they must get insulin from other sources. Historically, insulin used to be obtained from the pancreas of pigs. This process was quite wasteful as it took 10,000 pancreases to create just 1 pound of insulin. Patients would often suffer from side effects since the insulin was from another animal and not a human. However, with the discovery of DNA and our ability to insert DNA of our choice into microorganisms to utilize their machinery to make products for us, scientists have now been able to generate human insulin in yeast cells. This has allowed us to drastically improve the health outcomes of diabetic patients.

Talk about yeast cells, let's talk about my undergraduate intern with Amino Labs. We were introducing new DNA instructions (called plasmids) into yeast and using their DNA machinery to get them to behave in unique ways. For example, by introducing new instructions, yeast cells can digest sugars they normally do not (such as amylase) or we can get them to glow a different colour! The biggest takeaway from my internship at Amino Labs was getting to see how big the field of biotechnology is and how it is continuing to grow. I learned that biotechnology is not just something for scientists to be interested in, but can be a valuable tool for people in all sorts of fields, ranging from fashion all the way to forensics and law.

Recently, an exciting use of biotechnology I learned about is the use of CRISPR to one day treat diseases. CRISPR is a genetic engineering tool inspired by a defense system in prokaryotic organisms where we combine a DNA “cutting” enzyme with a target DNA sequence for a specific sequence of DNA. Since so many illnesses are caused by a mistake in our DNA code, we may have the possibility of replacing the damaged DNA and replacing with healthy DNA with the help of biotechnology. This is a very exciting area of research and has the potential to help people with diseases ranging from diabetes to different genetic disorders to cancer. 

Cancer can affect our body at the cellular level. But we can use the many tools available to us to treat them. In my Master’s research, I am studying a group of cancers called oral squamous cell carcinomas; I am looking into how we can sensitize these cancer cells to make them more susceptible to treatment and make the outlook for patients better. Oral squamous cell carcinomas (OSCC) are a very common cancer worldwide. Despite our treatment options, the outcome for patients is not very great, so, we are on the lookout for new ways to make it easier to treat. In my Master’s project, I am studying a few specific proteins (that are known to help cells survive stress) and their role in helping this cancer survive. I am studying what effect removing these proteins has on the ability of cancer cells to survive. As an analogy, we can consider trying to squish a box loaded with springs. The box is the cancer cell, the springs are the proteins, and our hands trying to squish them are the treatment. Squishing the box may do something, but the springs will help the box to prevent being completely flattened. If we were to remove the springs, it would make the box much easier to flatten out.

After my MSc, I would like to carry this interest to medical school and be a physician in the future to apply my knowledge to helping people.

For my high school readers:

Choosing a particular program to commit to when you finish highschool can be a stressful task. My main advice would be to not overthink it :)

Reflect on your interests and goals, reach out to academic advisors at colleges/universities and talk to your current teachers and then find the program that aligns the most with your interests and go for it.

Once in your program, if you find that you would rather do something different, it is always possible to change your program to best fit your needs. If you are specifically interested in biotechnology, most STEM based programs have begun incorporating concepts of biotechnology into it, so you will get exposure into biotechnology in almost any program you choose.

I would also encourage you to reach out to professors about your interest in biotechnology to see if you can participate in any interesting research opportunities. It is always nice to get hands-on experience in the field of biotechnology, as well as meet people who can further your interests and goals.

Lastly, I would encourage you to be as creative and imaginative as you can in the field of biotechnology. Do not let your creativity be limited by the current field of biotechnology as so many careers and opportunities in biotechnology have not been created yet.

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