Life Sciences Program Pairs High School Students with Faculty Volunteers

Sophia Manukian Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

Chelmsford High School graduate Sophia Manukian presents her summer research on the muscle protein titin to UML faculty, staff and fellow Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) student interns. She will be attending UMass Lowell this fall, majoring in chemistry.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Sophia Manukian loves science, especially biology and chemistry. So when she got an opportunity to do research in a university laboratory, the 18-year-old recent graduate of Chelmsford High School jumped at the chance.

This summer, Manukian spent eight weeks on campus, conducting research in the field of life science under the direction of chemistry Assoc. Prof. Matthew Gage, Ph.D. student Colleen Kelly and undergraduate student Emily Kim. Manukian’s project involved studying the N2A region of a critical muscle protein called titin. Titin is the largest protein molecule in the body and acts as a molecular spring that is responsible for the muscle’s elasticity.

“It is important to know how this molecule works to fully understand muscle contraction and how active and passive muscles function,” says Manukian. “Muscle contraction is important to movement.”

Manukian is one of nine high school students who were sponsored by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) under its High School Apprenticeship Challenge. The program facilitates and funds paid internship opportunities for high school students throughout the commonwealth. Since the program was launched in 2016, it has supported 106 internships at 49 life sciences companies and research institutions, which helped prepare students for career paths in the industry. This year was the first time UMass Lowell participated in the MLSC initiative.

“I’m very excited. I’ve had a really great experience in the program, and I’ve learned a lot of lab skills and techniques that I will use in college and in my future job,” says Manukian, who will be attending UMass Lowell in the fall, majoring in chemistry.

Susan Pryputniewicz, the technical program coordinator for graduate studies at the Francis College of Engineering who helped organize the program on campus, said MLSC covered the student stipends. “Faculty and UML students volunteered their time to work with the young researchers,” she said.

In addition to Gage, other faculty members who participated included Asst. Prof. Frederic Chain of the Department of Biological Sciences, Asst. Prof. Manos (Emmanouil) Gkikas of the Department of Chemistry and Profs. Kavitha Chandra, Charles Thompson and Hengyong Yu of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“The apprenticeship program is a great initiative by the Mass Life Sciences Center to get more local students from underrepresented schools into STEM. We really appreciate that they asked UMass Lowell to participate,” says Joseph Hartman, dean of the Francis College of Engineering.

“We were quite fortunate that faculty members from both the Kennedy College of Sciences and Francis College of Engineering were willing to mentor these students for 40 hours a week during the summer. It is clear from hearing the final presentations that it was a great experience for both the students and faculty,” Hartman says.

MLSC students

Aside from Manukian, shown here fourth from right, this year’s MLSC interns also include, from left, Johnetta Jallah, Chanravy Luy, Molly Vail, Jahnvi Patel, Katherine Huang, Rakheem Reth, Kathleen DeCastro Santos and Ann Nkole.

A Life-changing Opportunity

Along with Manukian, the other MLSC interns included Lowell High School graduates Kathleen DeCastro Santos and Jahnvi Patel and incoming seniors Katherine Huang, Ann Nkole and Johnetta Jallah, as well as Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School incoming seniors Rakheem Reth and Molly Vail and incoming junior Chanravy Luy. Their research projects ranged from monitoring the aquatic biodiversity of Lowell’s waterways to analyzing genomic diversity, synthesizing therapeutic materials, evaluating medical imaging algorithms and modeling ultrasonic wave propagation for biological applications.

“It’s really important to be able to apply the lab skills that we learned at school, because in high school, we weren’t necessarily doing all these experiments that we read about. To actually be working in the lab and getting real hands-on training is life-changing,” says Patel.

Patel worked with Gage and graduate student Christopher Tsiros to find out if titin binds with another muscle protein, called actin. Her lab results show that they do bind and that titin plays a much bigger role in muscle contraction than previously thought.

“I’m grateful to Prof. Gage and to Christopher for spending time to work with me, and to UMass Lowell for giving me and my fellow interns this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Patel, who will be going to the University of Pennsylvania this fall to pursue bioengineering.