During my 10-week PURM program, I conducted research in Dr. Erica Carpenter’s lab at the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine and learned about cancer liquid biopsy from both laboratory and clinical perspectives. Studying circulating tumor material, such as circulating tumor cells and cell-free DNA (cfDNA), the lab aims at harnessing these biomarkers to provide more accurate and timely cancer diagnosis and prognosis to support personalized treatment of cancer patients. Under the guidance of other Carpenter lab members, I mastered blood sample processing protocols as well as other laboratory workflows and supported the lab’s daily biobanking routine. I used ALU element-based quantitative polymerase chain reaction (ALU-qPCR) to quantify the amount of cfDNA in extracted plasma DNA samples generated from whole blood drawn from patients with cancer and healthy donors. I had hands-on experience using RainDance and Bio-Rad droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) platforms to measure the fraction of cfDNA molecules that have cancer mutations in a patient sample. Meanwhile, I shadowed Dr. Kim Reiss-Binder and other Penn Medicine physicians and acquired a better understanding of how physicians apply current scientific knowledge to treating different forms cancers, such as pancreatic, colorectal, and lung cancer.
Through PURM, I broadened my knowledge in cancer biology, learned to work as a productive member of a research team, and learned to be part of a collaborative effort. I also learned to ask meaningful scientific questions, think critically about and draw sound conclusions from data, and troubleshoot experimental procedures. Shadowing Dr. Reiss-Binder also deepened my appreciation of oncologists’ work, and as a pre-med student, I gained an invaluable, authentic experience of what a career in medicine is like.