Determined to Research

By Jessica Johns Pool

Kansas native Christina Ward wanted a summer internship where she could expand her lab experience between her bachelor’s and master’s programs. She was delighted to find the Summer Scholars Program at the Stowers Institute practically in her back yard.

After graduating with a BS in biology from the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas, Ward spent nearly a year working in a lab at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she performed various experiments in plasmid design and cloning for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research. She then joined the Stowers Institute for the summer, and worked on a joint project between the Linheng Li Lab and the Stowers Microscopy Center.

“I learned so much from my mentors—things I’d not even considered before,” enthuses Ward. “In the past I’d done a lot of biochemistry bench work, and at the Stowers Institute I was able to dive into bioinformatics and in vivo work with mice. It was exciting to try new things and new techniques, and become more versatile.”

This fall Ward begins a one-year master’s program in biomedical sciences at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. This determined young woman has her sights set on eventually becoming an MD-PhD physician scientist with her own lab working on clinical trials and translational medicine.

“The dual program would offer more time to develop fully a research focus extended from my medical specialty,” explains Ward. “It would also allow exponentially more time in laboratory training. During my master’s program, I plan to consider both the options of becoming a physician scientist as an MD or DO only versus an MD-PhD, with the input from knowledgeable advisors and professors.”

Growing up, Ward didn’t want to be a scientist, though she was always good in math. An ankle surgery in high school exposed her to physical therapy (PT) and she thought PT work was her passion. However, after shadowing some physical therapists, she realized she wasn’t interested in that particular career.

Her college professors helped her realize that her mastery of her lab classes might translate well for a career in medical research. Her passion for science also grew during a biochemistry internship at Kansas State University during her senior year where she purified proteins.

At the Institute, Ward joined the Li Lab where she worked with Postdoctoral Research Associate Meng Zhao, PhD, and Research Specialist Sarah Smith, PhD, on a project to investigate the hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) niche in adult mouse bone marrow. Distribution analysis of two HSC populations within bone marrow may help determine what molecular signals emitted by niche cells contribute to controlling whether the stem cells are primed and readily enter the cell cycle, or remain in a relatively quiescent state.

HSC activity is essential for daily maintenance of healthy blood, for immune response, and for repopulating blood cells following an injury. Meanwhile, quiescence helps maintain a reserve of healthy HSCs throughout life, and is thought to play a role in resistance to chemotherapy.

“Christina was very quick to grasp the goal of the project and how the daily experiments contributed to the goal. Despite having had very little experience with microscopes, she took to imaging right away and was able to run samples completely independently within the first two weeks, and was similarly quick to master other techniques,” says Smith. “She asked thoughtful questions and, being familiar with both sample preparation and imaging, was able to make tweaks to the procedure to improve efficiency. She's a very hard worker, ambitious, kind, friendly—she has a very bright future.”

Ward predicts that her time at the Stowers Institute will make a lasting impact on her career.

“My experience at the Stowers Institute was a memorable one,” says Ward. “It helped solidify my decision to incorporate research into my career path, and the laboratory techniques I learned increased my versatility. I was drawn to the Institute because it fit geographically, but then I found this beautiful facility with amazing resources.”