Research for the First Time

by Kevin Vargas

Before attending college, I was never really sure what I wanted to do after graduation. In fact, I’m still not completely sure, and I’m already halfway finished with college. When I applied to college, I applied as an economics and sociology double major. Therefore I never considered doing scientific research or anything science-related. However, once I started college and decided to take courses in biology, chemistry, and math, I considered becoming involved with research to further my understanding of the scientific method and how new discoveries take place. There was one problem though:  I didn’t know where to begin.

Luckily, I received an email from my cultural center encouraging interested students to apply to the Science, Technology, and Research Scholars (STARS) Program through the Yale College Dean’s Office. The program was created and designed to support and provide resources to underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, such as women, minorities, and economically underprivileged students. Students accepted into the STARS Summer Research Program receive a summer stipend, on-campus housing, and a class on how to create a research paper and presentation. I knew that I needed to take advantage of this opportunity so I applied and was fortunate enough to be accepted into the program. Next, I needed to find a principal investigator (PI) and mentor who would allow me to join their lab for the summer and introduce me to research work. I contacted Professor Jay Humphrey, a leading researcher in the field of vascular mechanics and tissue engineering, who allowed me to work in his lab. I was under the mentorship of a Ph.D candidate, David, and joined a group of graduate students working on various projects in the lab.

My work primarily focused on the relationship between mechanical strain and collagen production in adventitial fibroblasts. Adventitial fibroblasts are cells located in the outermost layer of connective tissue covering things like organs or vessels. They synthesize proteins necessary for healing cuts and other injuries and produce collagen for support in connective tissue. Prior research has shown that collagen determines large artery stiffness, which then contributes to cardiovascular disease, one of the leading causes of death in the world. Therefore, a greater understanding of the role adventitial fibroblasts play alongside other effects of stimuli on collagen production will result in a greater ability to prevent and treat cardiovascular related diseases.

During that summer, David and I collected cells from a mouse aorta in the lab, grew those cells, and placed them into a bioreactor that simulated blood pressure flow in the human body. We had to be sure that we had isolated the correct cells and that they survived the bioreactor, otherwise our research would not be useful. The research we conducted was important in helping to understand the role arterial wall stiffness plays in vascular disease.

By the end of the program, I had written a final paper detailing our research and its importance. I had also created a presentation during the summer class and was actually able to present it at a symposium filled with other scientists. It was also an awesome experience to understand how scientific research worked, especially since I had never worked in a lab before. It was also nice learning how to write a scientific paper as well as create and actually present a presentation in front of other researchers. I feel like I am a better writer and public speaker as a result. With this exposure to scientific research in adventitial fibroblasts, I’ve decided to declare my major as Biomedical Engineering. Therefore, I will definitely use this experience as I go into my final two years of college and possibly even after graduation.

Kevin Vargas is a graduate of the Round Lake High School Class of 2011 and a rising junior at Yale University. During summer 2013, he worked as an SSP intern at the central office in Lake Forest, IL. Learn more about Kevin on LinkedIn.


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