For any scientist, let alone an undergraduate, getting published in Nature or Science is very difficult to do. Less than 1% of the researchers at the entire university last year authored a paper in either journal, according to Nature Index.
So, imagine the high-five moment when UMass Boston biology students Emal Lesha (pictured above), Haydy George, Jurgen Poci and Rebeca Cortazio learned a few weeks ago that a paper they helped author was published in Science. Haydy was acknowledged as a co–lead author.
“Genome-wide inactivation of porcine endogenous retroviruses” reports the ability to use CRISPR–Cas9 to make 62 edits to the pig genome to remove latent retroviruses, presenting a solution to one of the largest safety concerns that has so far blocked progress in making pig organs compatible for xenotransplant in humans.
Getting into a prestigious lab
These UMass Boston students found their way into one of the world’s most prestigious labs thanks to Luhan Yang, a 2014 Forbes 30 under 30, who founded the company eGenesis. The company spun out of the lab of George Church at Harvard University and located at the VDC in September 2014. The company’s mission is to transform xenotransplantation – transplanting organs from one species to another – into an everyday, lifesaving medical procedure.
Luhan’s first request upon arriving at the VDC was for interns. Dean Andrew Grosovsky recommended Haydy and Emal. When eGenesis had to retreat back to the Church lab’s support to complete the work that led to the Science publication, and which was needed to obtain private investment in eGenesis, Luhan took them with her and had them appointed as Research Fellows. And its no surprise why.
Working very hard
According to Haydy: “I worked very closely with Dr. Yang. She found me to be organized, reliable and a hard worker. Thus, she quickly gave me responsibilities and I was up for the challenge. I worked very hard, even nights and weekends, to be able to produce the best work possible. I try to exceed in everything I do.”
Emal added: “Along with my teammates, we work very hard to find solutions knowing that one day they could make a difference in medicine and patient treatment. This is the most rewarding part of this experience.”
Haydy and Emal introduced Jurgen to Luhan, who brought him on as a Research Assistant. Haydy then encouraged Rebeca to apply for a 10-week summer undergraduate research internship for underrepresented students program offered by the Church lab, which she won.
I have this wonderful opportunity all thanks to UMass and the VDC.
This is a dream come true for Haydy: “Everyday as I walk along Louis Pasteur Avenue, I am amazed and grateful that I am part of the eGenesis team. I love the cutting-edge projects that truly make you think outside the box. Just before graduating, I took an Honors class called Invention and Innovation. One of the assignments was to choose an inventor of your choice. I chose Dr. George Church, so now to be working and learning in his lab is such a dream come true and an honor. I have this wonderful opportunity all thanks to UMass and the VDC.”
Offering a helping hand
What advice do Emal and Haydy have for other students hoping to follow in their footsteps?
Emal said: “Work hard and always seek opportunities inside and outside campus. Since the first day I started my undergraduate career, I was continuously looking for new opportunities. These experiences also gave me the opportunity to be a co-author in 6 publications, one in Science. I believe any student can have such achievements, if they dedicate their time and efforts to pursue their goals and their dreams.”
Haydy said: “My motto in life is that you have to walk with one hand forward and another backward. With the forward hand, someone more experienced than you, can help pull you along. With the backward hand, you can pull forward a new individual based on your experiences.”
Haydy and Emal did just that for their UMass Boston colleagues Jurgen Poci and Rebeca Cortazio.
The key to their success? They are following their dreams. But in the right environment, where everybody around them is taking risks—a fair number are failing and a fair number are succeeding wildly.
Haydy and Emal are beneficiaries of the U.S. Dept. of Labor funded and City of Boston sponsored SCILS (Skilled Careers In Life Sciences Initiative) program, which prepares students to hit the ground running in startup companies. Their internships at eGenesis were funded by the Massachusetts Life Science Center’s Internship Challenge program.