Wellesley Students Chosen to Attend the National Institutes of Health INRO Program

February 16, 2017
Wellesley Students Chosen to Attend the National Institutes of Health INRO Program

Two Wellesley biochemistry majors, Dania Figueroa ’17 and Katherine Olivia Yanes ’17, were among the group of academically talented doctoral candidates, medical students, and college seniors who gathered in Bethesda, Md., last week from February 6 to 9 for the Intramural NIAID Research Opportunity program (INRO). The highly competitive program gives students from underrepresented populations in biomedical sciences the chance to train as a researcher in state-of-the-science labs and talk to professionals and potential mentors individually. It is sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the second-largest institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Being around such a diverse group of people made me feel like NIAID and NIH understand the value of inclusivity,” said Figueroa. “From the INRO staff to the attending alumni and the current trainees, everyone was incredibly nice and welcoming. It felt like they really wanted us to find a place at NIAID.”

Figueroa was impressed by the groundbreaking research she learned about, and she was particularly enthralled by a panel on malaria. “What really struck me was how the scientists were each targeting a different part of the parasite,” she said. “It really spoke to the collaboration and community that is necessary for scientific advancement.”

“I was surprised that the program coordinators were able to organize speakers for us over a broad range of scientific interests,” said Yanes. One of the presenters she appreciated most was keynote speaker Togo D. West Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs. “His message—to be someone of conviction, and act accordingly—really spoke to me in the current political environment.”

Megan Núñez, professor of chemistry at Wellesley, encouraged both students to apply for the program. She has recommended students for it before, noting that it provides an excellent opportunity for young scientists to gain exposure to future career paths and make important contacts. “Because the students get to meet the lead investigators directly, it is a great networking opportunity, and as we all know, networking is both really important and hard to do when you are young and you don’t know anyone yet,” Núñez said. “Both of my students who participated in this program previously came back with job offers, and one of them went on to a summer internship at the NIH’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories.”

Figueroa and Yanes are already familiar with cutting-edge research. Three years of research with Donald Elmore, associate professor of chemistry at Wellesley, helped qualify Figueroa for the INRO program. “I worked on a project that characterized the role of cationic residues in histone-derived antimicrobial peptides (HDAPs) in a variety of bacterial strains,” she said. “Currently, I am ‘thesising’ and developing gram-positive, cell-wall deficient bacteria in order to enhance the resolution of confocal microscopy images that show the interaction between the bacteria and HDAPs.” Figueroa plans to pursue a career in molecular virology.

Yanes is currently conducting research at Tufts Medical Center: “I am studying the role of a protein, called CpClec, in mediating infection of the parasite Cryptosporidium, in vivo. Cryptosporidium causes disease in humans, so in a broader sense, this research is at the intersection of immunology and infectious disease.”

Last week’s program may propel both students forward in their endeavors. “Throughout the program, I was able to form bonds with former INRO students at the NIH as well as INRO students across the country,” said Yanes. “I look forward to keeping in touch with them as we each grow in our careers.”