IAP Externships: Learning the Immunology of Autoimmune Diseases

by Amy Marcott on February 9, 2012

in IAP, Student Life

This is part of a series of posts from MIT students and alumni who were involved in the Student/Alumni Externship Program, which connects current students to alumni in workplaces worldwide during MIT’s Independent Activities Period. Alumni, learn how to get involved.

Guest blogger: Isra Shabir ’14
Host: Dr. Leonard Chess ’64

Lunch with Dr. Chess. From left: Isra Shabir '14, Leonard Chess '64, Judy Deng '14

Lunch with Dr. Chess. From left: Isra Shabir ’14, Leonard Chess ’64, Judy Deng ’14

My name is Isra Shabir, and I’m a current sophomore at MIT. I’m spending my IAP in New York City at Columbia University’s Medical Center, immersing myself in the specific aspect of biology and clinical research known as immunology. Heard of type I diabetes? Familiar with what causes it? The answer, which I shall explain in a bit, is surprising and unknown to most people.

On my first day at the Medical Center, I was slightly nervous but excited at the same time to be walking among so many world-class doctors and researchers. Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Judy Deng ’14 also happened to be externing with me, and we were both ecstatic to do this program. Our mentor, Dr. Leonard Chess ’64, has served as a medical researcher and division head of rheumatology at Columbia for 26 years. Incredible? Yes. What’s more, he’s the most amiable professor-like figure I have ever worked with. Soon after we all met up at the highly secured gates, Dr. Chess gave us a tour of the Medical Center and spent some time talking about its history. Later, we settled at his office and exchanged fun facts about each other’s lives. Professor Chess also made it clear to us that in the next one month, we were to learn a lot, but of course, in a fun way. He then let us off with some lunch money—sweet, right?

So what goes on at the Chess Lab? Dr. Chess and his team are working on finding a clinical cure to autoimmune diseases.  These diseases are initiated when our body’s immune mechanism begins to attack and destroy self-cells as opposed to just attacking foreign matter. Type I diabetes is an example of an autoimmune disease.  It’s caused when the pancreas is attacked and can no longer produce insulin for the maintenance of blood glucose level. Dr. Chess’s lab has been testing various mechanisms to fight autoimmunity causing type I diabetes in mice. Remarkably, there has been immense success in this research. And now, their focus is to make advancements in clinical research in order to treat the disease in humans.

Cell culturesThat’s some background information on what the lab does. Judy and I have been spending our time studying immunological concepts and, in detail, autoimmune diseases. Every day, we go over a different topic with Dr. Chess and discuss it. Later in the day, we are allowed into the lab to shadow some of the ongoing research procedures as well as assist the researchers. For example, we started off culturing cells and counting them upon growth.  On the left is a picture of what Judy and I called our “baby” cells (after all, we fed them and took care of them).

After spending two weeks at this externship, we have already learned quite a bit about autoimmune diseases. We will be spending the next two weeks learning more about clinical protocols of research as well as gaining insight into how biological research can be extended to patients and normal human beings. We will also get to spend one entire day shadowing a medical doctor and acquaint ourselves with the work life of a general practitioner.  Both of us are excited about this opportunity!

Oh, did I forget to mention that we’ve been exploring NYC too? Judy and I love shopping and eating. So we’ve been trying the different food carts NYC offers, as well as window shopping to our hearts’ desires. We’re planning on hitting up some museums soon, too. And the complicated subway system is now second nature to both of us. Life’s good!

I must say that even though there’s only so much one can gain from a monthlong period, it’s the experience that counts and makes it worthwhile. I am getting to learn concepts one-on-one with an accomplished teacher while also developing my knowledge in areas I might not have otherwise. I have found an awesome friend in Judy, and I am getting to know New York City as much as possible. If someone wants to gain in-depth knowledge in something completely new, find out about a career, and have some fun at the same time, the MIT Student/Alumni Externship Program is the way to go!

At least this is my opinion. You’ll have to believe me.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Maanisaad Shahriar February 9, 2012 at 11:24 am

Great story, Isra!

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