When Andrew Kim ’13 enrolled at Vassar five years ago, he intended to go to medical school as soon as he earned his undergraduate degree. But by his senior year, Kim had altered his plan. “I decided I wanted to engage in some research before I pursued my medical degree,” he says.
Kim had become particularly interested in cancer research after spending two summer internships at UCLA that focused on brain cancer. Now he’s part of a research team at Harvard Medical School that is tackling one of the deadliest forms of the disease, pancreatic cancer. And he’s assisting his research mentor in some genetic analysis that’s showing some promising results.
The leader of Kim’s research team is an attending physician and gastroenterologist at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, where he treated someone for pancreatic cancer. After learning that several of the patient’s relatives had also had cancer, the research team found some intriguing patterns. “We did some genome sequencing on the tumor samples and found a common gene in these family members that may be promoting the progression of cancer,” Kim says.
The research team plans to publish a paper on its findings in a medical journal next year. “Some of the data will come from experiments I helped run; it’s very exciting,” Kim says.
Landing a research post at Harvard Medical School wasn’t easy. Kim did it the old-fashioned way: he filled out more than 100 applications after scouring websites and job notices at dozens of hospitals and universities throughout the United States. “I concentrated on the Boston area because it’s one of the major bio-medical hubs in the country, but I sent applications all over the country,” Kim says. “I even scanned Craigslist.”
A biology major, Kim says all of his science courses helped him prepare for life after Vassar. But two courses he took during his senior year helped him refine his post-graduate goals. “Two classes, one on epigenetics with assistant professor Jennifer Kennell and another on stem cells taught by professor Nancy Pokrywka, really taught me to appreciate the research being done in the basic sciences like developmental biology,” Kim says. “They helped to clarify the complexities of the physiological interactions that go on in the body from the development of the embryo to the maintenance of the adult organism.”
Working at a major medical research facility has helped him broaden his knowledge of the field, Kim says, both in his interactions with his colleagues at Harvard and with prominent visiting physicians and scientists who deliver lectures there. He was particularly inspired by a talk by Dr. Mark Krasnow, a visiting professor from Stanford, on the development of the mammalian lung in mice. “One would think this is a fairly chaotic process with all the different airway branches emanating from other airway branches,” Kim says, “but his research revealed that it was a surprisingly simple and patterned process, a really beautiful example of how your DNA and genes can control the ultimate structure and function of complex solid organs. The lecture as well as the work I’ve been doing here at Harvard has helped focus my research interests.”
Kim is applying to medical schools and tentatively plans to enroll next fall. But he says his stint in the research lab has been rewarding. “It’s not every day you get to take part in the discovery of a possible way to combat cancer,” he says. “Having this job made me appreciate the incremental advances made in science that lead to the overall progression of a discovery. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.”