Summer research: Q&A with LMP undergraduate Alena Zelinka

Wednesday, March 26, 2014
LMP Professor and Chair Richard Hegele, Alena Zelinka and Professor Michal Opas
LMP Professor and Chair Richard Hegele and Professor Michal Opas present Alena Zelinka with first place at the 2013 Summer Student Poster Day

Third-year pathobiology specialist student Alena Zelinka discusses her experience of conducting summer research with Professor Jeffrey Lee. She is the inaugural recipient of the 2014 Graduate and Life Sciences Education Undergraduate Summer Research Project Studentship. She was also the winner of the 2013 Summer Student Poster Day and is looking forward to this year’s competition.

What were you researching with Professor Lee? I was studying the human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 integrase. Human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 is an oncogenic retrovirus and causes, among other diseases, adult T-cell leukemia. Although many retroviruses cause animal disease, this was the first retrovirus shown to result in human disease. I was specifically working towards crystallizing integrase, responsible for the integration of transcribed viral DNA into host cell DNA. The crystal structure of the enzyme will provide detailed insight into the protein’s active site, and this in turn will bring us closer to understanding the interactions which occur between it and its inhibitors.

How could this research potentially impact society? Human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 has been estimated to affect 15-20 million people worldwide. Adult T-cell leukemia, which it causes, is a rapidly progressive and deadly disease, and there is no known cure or vaccine. Studies such as this may eventually lead to the discovery of new drugs and treatments.

What did you like most about your research experience? It was exciting for me to know I was up-to-date with the most recent research being done world-wide in this area. Just as important, I enjoyed the support I received from everyone in the lab, and the opportunity to develop and refine my ideas through discussions with lab members. 

What advice would you give to undergraduates who are considering summer research? I would strongly encourage undergraduates to think about summer research in early fall, and to read as well as think about the work that is going on in the Department labs, in order to select the research that appeals to them.  Speaking to the investigators early in the term almost always trumps sending e-mails in the spring.  Selecting a supervisor who they can relate to and communicate with easily is important. And once they become summer lab members, the most important advice I would give them is to read voraciously, not be afraid to ask questions, and learn as much as possible from everyone. Furthermore, the summer is short, at least in terms of the work that can be done. Therefore, shortly after starting in the lab, it may be useful to create a detailed (and realistic) plan for what they will need to do. Lastly, it is a good idea to start with the end in mind.  Even in May, they might want to think about how they would like their August poster to look.