Students Today, Scientists Tomorrow: Interns Shine in the City of Hope Spotlight

September 6, 2017 | by Michael Easterling

Student intern Ben Nittayo | City of Hope Student intern Benjamin Nittayo
Twenty-four-year-old Benjamin Nittayo remembers sitting in the Japanese Garden on the City of Hope campus with his dad, looking down at the koi swimming in the pond. He says it’s a fond memory of what would become one of their last days together. When his father succumbed to acute myeloid leukemia (AML), Nittayo says it changed the course of his life.
 
“When he was sick, I was here almost every day visiting him,” he said. “After I lost him, I thought I’d never come back to City of Hope. But I decided to face my fear and dedicate my life to cancer research, starting with the summer program at City of Hope.”
 
Nittayo has returned to the City of Hope campus the last two summers as a student of the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy.
 
Currently a senior at California State University Los Angeles, he said he plans to pursue his Ph.D. in immunology, and perhaps lead research someday to cure AML, the disease that took his dad away from him.
 
“I want to carry his memory on through my work,” Nittayo said. “Being in this summer student program helped me do that. It influenced the kind of research I want to get into as a scientist and it connected me to my dad.”
 
“I want to continue the research I was able to start here so other people won’t have to go through what I went through. I don’t wish that on anybody.”
 
This summer, Nittayo served in a lab at Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope, where he was paired with Edwin Manuel, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics. They worked together on a pancreatic cancer study, as well as a pilot lab project on AML.
 
“As his mentor, I can only say wonderful things about Ben,” Manuel said. “He is an extremely dedicated, meticulous and hardworking person. He accomplished his summer project in record time. He very quickly understood not only how to do experiments I assigned him, but why he was doing them. I feel he has a real passion for research and contributing to a cure for cancer. Wherever his father might be, I’m sure he is incredibly proud of Ben. As am I.”
 

Hosting CIRM SPARK for the First Time

Nittayo was one of 86 students who spent 10 weeks this summer at the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy, which was founded in 1960 by Eugene and Ruth Roberts to give curious and hardworking students the opportunity to learn about science by working in a laboratory setting. Many see their names in published research papers, and some have even patented and sold inventions developed with their mentors.
 
Salvaterra-Paul Paul Salvaterra, Ph.D.
Eugene Roberts, Ph.D. (1920-2016), was director emeritus of neurobiology, whose career spanned more than six decades at City of Hope. In addition to the annual end-of-summer session where the students present their research through posters and presentations, this year City of Hope also hosted the annual Student Meeting of the CIRM SPARK program for the first time.
 
“Students with an interest and acumen in science, technology, engineering and math in many ways represent the future of City of Hope,” said Paul Salvaterra, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Developmental and Stem Cell Biology, program director of the student academy for 40 years and this year’s Student Meeting event chair. “Cultivating that talent and shaping those minds can create the researchers and physicians who may one day cure cancer, diabetes or another disease.“
 

Multiple Myeloma Research: Ashley Niu and Amrita Krishnan, M.D.

UCLA junior Ashley Niu also participated in the highly competitive Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy, studying multiple myeloma treatment with Amrita Krishnan, M.D., director of the Judy and Bernard Briskin Center for Multiple Myeloma Research.
 
Niu, who plans to go to medical school and become both a treating physician and a researcher, said she was attracted by the opportunity to do a hands-on independent biomedical research project.
 
“The Roberts Academy has given me opportunities that exceeded my expectations,” she said. “I have been able to work under Dr. Krishnan and learn about the current treatments of multiple myeloma, observe bone marrow biopsies and interact with patients.” Though her research project specifically focused on a medication called Dara, “I have become familiar with other myeloma treatments such as Revlimid and Velcade. In the lab, I have become skilled at performing laboratory techniques like Ficoll, flow cytometry staining and cell culture.”
 
She said her favorite part of the program was presenting her research at the end-of-summer poster session, “which allowed me to practice public speaking, as well as share my research with other people.”
 

Focusing on Canavan’s Disease: Ashley Anderson and Yanhong Shi, Ph.D.

For student Ashley Anderson, Canavan’s disease was the focus of her summer research. Her mentor was Yanhong Shi, Ph.D., director of City of Hope’s Division of Stem Cell Biology Research, who is leading a grant-funded study on the disease. Anderson is a student at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, whose experience with science and research before coming to City of Hope had only been academic.
 
Student intern Ashley Anderson | City of Hope Mira Costa High School student Ashley Anderson presented her research at the CIRM SPARK conference.
“I was looking for an internship in biosciences where I could apply my interest in science more hands-on,” she said. “Science is more than reading a textbook, you need to practice it. That’s what SPARK has done for me.”
 
The Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge, or SPARK, is sponsored by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), of which City of Hope is a partner.
 
“Being at City of Hope and being a part of SPARK was amazing,” said Anderson, who aims to become a bioscientist. “I learned so much from Dr. Shi. It’s great to physically be in a lab and make things happen.”
 

Practice What You Teach: Ronald Clinton and Mentor Tijana Talisman, Ph.D.

Ronald Clinton spent his summer with Tijana Talisman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine, studying the biology of pancreatic cancer cells. “It’s fascinating to go from just reading about it in class to seeing that concept in action, to learn from it and figure out how to troubleshoot. I’m so glad to have had this opportunity.”
 
Student intern Ronald Clifton  | City of Hope Ronald Clifton with mentor Tijana Talisman, Ph.D.
“We show these students that science is not just a man, not just a woman, but a team,” Talisman said. “You have trouble sometimes and things don’t work, and students learn this is a good thing because it can send you in another direction. Even a negative result is a result. That’s a beautiful thing to learn.”
 
In 2015, Clinton’s house in Manhattan Beach was firebombed in a racially motivated attack. His parents and two siblings are the only African-American family in their neighborhood.
 
Undeterred, Clinton excelled in his studies at his local high school, and later that year, he spent his first summer at City of Hope, where he was exposed to the world of science and all its possibilities. He said it influenced the direction his life would take. He was accepted to three Ivy League colleges this year, and will be attending Stanford University in the fall, majoring in biology. Clinton said he hopes to incorporate his love of policy as well, and perhaps become a research lobbyist.
 

‘Blown Away’

“Every year I am amazed and inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of these students,” said Salvaterra, for whom an essay scholarship was created in 2014 in honor of his long tenure as director of the summer academy.  “I couldn’t have done what they are doing when I was their age. These students blow me away.”
 
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