Emily Ashkin didn’t let her young age – 14 – get in the way last year when she decided she wanted to work in a lab doing cancer research. Not only did she secure a spot in a lab last summer by herself, but she also did her own research project that won several awards.
For Emily Ashkin, age doesn’t compare with motivation to learn.
She didn’t let her young age – 14 – get in the way last year when she decided she wanted to work in a lab doing cancer research. Not only did Emily secure a spot in a lab last summer by herself, but she also did her own research project that won several awards. She even represented North Carolina at the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in Dayton, Ohio, last month.
And she hasn’t taken a high school biology class yet.
Emily, now 15 and a rising junior at Providence Day, said she knew she wanted to dig in with cancer research when someone in her family had cancer (she declines to get into detail), and she wanted to do something to help.
After attending the White House Science Fair in the ninth grade with her school’s eCYBERMISSION group, Emily said she was inspired by the other students there who took initiative to do their own amazing projects. “After seeing these people successfully do it, why can’t it be me?” she remembered thinking to herself.
So in March of her freshman year of high school, Emily sent emails and letters to every biology professor at UNC-Charlotte, asking for a chance to work in their labs.
“I got rejection after rejection after rejection,” she said. “Most didn’t respond, or said I was too young.”
But then her letter caught the eye of Didier Dréau, an associate professor in UNCC’s biology department.
“Her letter was more mature than most of the students’,” he said, noting one of his pet peeves from student letters requesting experience: “First of all, we don’t say ‘Hey Professor,’ there’s ‘Dear Doctor,’ and so it gets on your nerves after a while.”
Dréau agreed to meet with Emily to see if he thought she was truly interested. She was.
After landing a place in Dréau’s lab, which researches breast cancer cells, one of Dréau’s Ph.D. students, Stephen Rego, mentored Emily.
He gave her a textbook, at the undergraduate biology level, about cancer. “I gave her a few chapters, and said, ‘Just look these over when you get the time.’ I think within the first day, she read every single chapter plus a couple more.”
After reading that book, plus online medical articles, and working on experiments with Rego, Emily came up with her own hypothesis. She wanted to test if a certain protein that some people have in their bodies would make the cancer drug doxorubicin less effective. If that was the case, people could be tested for the protein before taking the drug, which causes an increased risk of heart attacks and congestive heart failure.
With two months of experiments, results showed that Emily’s hypothesis seemed right.
“I was happy. I was surprised. It took me a while to comprehend that my hypothesis was leading to correct results,” she said, quickly adding, “it could be coincidence. It’s not entirely a breakthrough yet, but it could be.”
After the internship was over, she entered her findings, titled “The Presence of Rb Protein in Metastatic Breast Cancer Cell Lines and Its Effects on Responsiveness to Doxorubicin” at competitions “everywhere” so she could get plenty of feedback.
Emily won the Center for STEM Education Excellence in Research award and the senior first place grand award in biological sciences at the Charlotte Regional Science and Engineering fair. She was also invited to – and attended – the N.C. Science and Engineering Fair. This March, she won first place in the cellular and molecular biology category at the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society’s Student Research Showcase. (Competitors were at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels.)
Then she went to the Junior Science Symposium at the state level and was selected to move onto the national level last month in Ohio.
“It was the best experience of my life,” Emily said.
She presented for 12 minutes (after practicing a lot with teachers at Providence Day), and had a 6-minute question and answer panel with at least half a dozen judges, who were science professors.
“It went well,” she said. “I didn’t win, but I did win. I got the experience.”
Emily said she loved meeting other students, gaining inspiration from them, and learning about their projects.
Michelle Sebastian, Emily’s chemistry teacher, said she has enjoyed watching a transformation in Emily.
She said that Emily’s lab skills were initially “rough around the edges,” which is typical for most young high school students, but that “she’s developed into a scientist with finesse in the laboratory. She looks at things critically and brings meaning to data.”
Emily has returned to UNCC this summer for research, but she’s in a different lab. She said she wants to do more research on her doxorubicin project someday, and that she believes she’s found her career path.
“It’s meant the world to me,” she said of her lab experience. “Working in this lab has opened my eyes to see the impact cancer research can have. I’m so excited to be a part of that, starting now and for the rest of my life.”
Next up: Her first high school biology class.
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