Biochem major discovers new interest during prestigious internship

Senior Danielle Kestner.
December 04, 2012

Internships can go one of two ways – they either give interns an idea of what they want to do or show them in no uncertain terms what to avoid. Senior Dani Kestner’s internship did both.

The Biochemistry major discovered her passion for physiology during her internship, the highly competitive Physiology Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA). But she also developed a deep dislike for the tiny worms, Caenorbhabditis elegans, that were the focus of her research on the aging process.

The mitochondrial mutant worms experience longevity even though the mitochondria or energy producers in their cells have mutated. For these worms their couple of days of life is extended by a couple more days.

“Humans would have no energy and die – but these worms live longer,” says Kestner, explaining that after the paid summer internship for which only six students were chosen nationwide, she refocused her sights on graduate school in physiology because of the class and the journal club that were also components of the program.

Lab was frustrating to Kestner because weeks and weeks of trying to get bacteria to produce a specific protein were unsuccessful. Still, she acknowledges, sometimes you learn more by what’s going wrong. In this case, she learned a lot of new lab techniques and, more importantly, what graduate school is like and what direction she wants to take in pursuing her Ph.D.

“I just didn’t realize before how extensive physiology is – how many different fields there are within physiology,” Kestner, from Frederick, Md., says. “In class we heard all about studies of naked mole rats – they look like little sausages – that do not get cancer. A professor there is studying them and she has the largest colony of naked mole rats in the world.

“And we also found out that we have learned more about our eyes by studying fruit flies’ eyes. I didn’t know that but it is really awesome!”

Kestner’s summer of research in the lab will serve as the basis of her Senior Seminar paper, and she’ll use what she learned over the summer in the journal club about how best to present data and research.

But now that she is looking ahead at graduate school, Kestner knows she wants to study physiology – in particular proteins and how they are related to disease.

“I had the opportunity to go to graduate school for two months – and I found out that’s what I want to do,” Kestner says.

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