Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 20, 2024

Everything downstream: Reflections on two years of cancer research

By SHIRLENE JOHN | November 15, 2023

typical-mri-appearance-of-diffuse-intrinsic-pontine-glioma-dipg-fonc-02-00205-g002

KATHERINE E. WARREN / CC BY 3.0

MRI images of a brain affected by diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, an aggressive pediatric brain cancer and a focus of Craig-Schwartz’s research as an undergraduate at Hopkins.

If you had met junior Jordyn Craig-Schwartz when she was younger, she would have described herself as someone who never stopped asking questions. Now in her second full year of conducting research at Hopkins, Craig-Schwartz emphasized in an interview with The News-Letter how excited she is to be in an environment where questions are not only allowed but encouraged. 

Craig-Schwartz works in a pediatric oncology lab under Dr. Michael Koldobskiy, whose research focuses on diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), an aggressive and fatal form of brain cancer that occurs almost exclusively in children. The lab is currently working on developing new drugs to combat the tumor as well as studying the epigenetic mechanisms of how the development of the tumor is regulated. 

Craig-Schwartz explained how studying epigenetics may help researchers unlock the cure for DIPG.

“This tumor is driven by a mutation in the histones that DNA wraps around. When there are histone mutations, everything downstream of that point is dysregulated, and that's the driving mutation of this cancer,” she said. “We're using epigenetic therapies to change things like methylation or other chemical markers that can be added to histones or DNA.”

Craig-Schwartz’s interest in studying genetics started in high school, specifically when she participated in an independent science research program where she studied Hirschsprung's disease at New York University. As she learned more about the genetic mechanisms behind the disease, she became fascinated with how DNA shapes our health. 

Incidentally, this research experience in high school connected her to Koldobskiy at Hopkins. Craig-Schwartz had heard of Dr. Andrew Feinberg, who is the director of the Center for Epigenetics at Hopkins, from a research paper she had read for her independent study. Therefore, she reached out to Feinberg as a freshman, but he was on sabbatical at that time. 

Craig-Schwartz recalled how she first connected with her current lab mentor, Dr. Koldobskiy. 

“I went on [Feinberg’s] website, and there was one other faculty member listed. It was my PI, and I CC'd him on the email,” she said. “He reached out, and when he gave me the pitch of what epigenetics is and how that relates to pediatric cancer, I was just fascinated. I joined, not really knowing what was happening, but here — almost two years later — I’m so happy with my decision.” 

Since the spring of her freshman year, Craig-Schwartz has worked on a variety of projects with different people. When she first started at the lab, she shadowed a research technician who was working in the lab while applying to MD-PhD programs. For the first half of her summer after freshman year, Craig-Schwartz helped the technician with her project and learned the ropes of running experiments. But, starting in the second half of summer, Craig-Schwartz took the lead. 

She shared her feelings when she first had the steering wheel in her hands. 

“It was very daunting, but I think it allowed me to grow more confident and develop my skills, as well as understand what research can be like when you're by yourself,” she said. “It can be lonely at times, but it forced me to really understand what I was doing.”

However, in the summer after her sophomore year, the Koldobskiy Lab expanded to include a lab technician, postdoctoral student and several summer students. Craig-Schwartz found the collaborative nature of science to be extremely rewarding. 

“You always need other people to bounce ideas off of. At our lab meeting, everyone presents the work that they are doing, and that really allows you to ask questions you haven't thought of for your own projects,” she said.

The day-to-day aspects of Craig-Schwartz’s work involve DIPG cell lines, which form neurospheres — a specific type of cancer cell culture made up of neural stem cells and progenitor cells. In specific conditions and cultures, these cells aggregate and form clusters that look like floating balls. They provide a valuable model for understanding brain development and neurogenesis.

She then treats them with different drugs and determines protein expression in the cells with a variety of both qualitative and quantitative assays. This enables her to compare the efficacy of various treatments on changing the protein expression.

Craig-Schwartz also helps prepare for procedures such as DNA and RNA sequencing, as well as whole genome bisulfite sequencing, which can identify methylated DNA bases.

When asked about her favorite aspect of conducting research, Craig-Schwartz praised the supportive and inquisitive environment that her PI and her lab have cultivated.

“One of the reasons why I wanted to do research here is that questions are encouraged, and I don't feel like I'm annoying for asking questions — [I] just [have] the freedom to explore and delve into something that I’m fascinated by,” she said. “I don't know if every lab environment is like this, but all of the people in my lab care about the work, but we also care about each other as people. It feels so rare, and I was really lucky to find [my lab].”

In terms of her future endeavors, Craig-Schwartz hopes to continue to do research as a physician-scientist. She is inspired by how her PI is able to connect aspects of his clinical work — seeing patients facing cancer in the hospital — to his lab.

“As a physician-scientist, you're able to work with patients and see what they're going through, and then go to your lab and do the research to try to make things better for them,” she said.

Through her work in the lab, Craig-Schwartz has grown more confident in her ability to conduct research and better understand her strengths. She reflects on how she has been able to take on larger projects and more responsibilities after two years. 

“I've learned I can take really challenging tasks and figure them out — whether that is reading a paper and coming up with ideas for a new protocol or figuring out a way to make my experiment work, even if I don't know what it means at first,” she said.

After reflecting on her experience as an undergraduate researcher so far, Craig-Schwartz offered some advice for underclassmen trying to start conducting research.

“Don't be afraid. Send the cold emails. Send your resume. Don't be bogged down if someone says, ‘Sorry, my lab is full.' Just keep trying; it's definitely worth it,” she said. 

Research on the Record spotlights undergraduate students involved in STEM research at Hopkins. The goal of the column is to share reflections on the highs and lows that Hopkins students experience in their contributions to undergraduate research. If you are an undergraduate researcher interested in being profiled, reach out to science@jhunewsletter.com.


Have a tip or story idea?
Let us know!

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.

Podcast
Multimedia
Be More Chill
Leisure Interactive Food Map
The News-Letter Print Locations
News-Letter Special Editions