Alyssa Kanagaki ’10 Focuses on Cell Growth in Harvard Internship

Alyssa Kanagaki '10 (left) with Christina Nurnberg, a high school student intern from Germany.
Alyssa Kanagaki '10 (left) with Christina Nurnberg, a high school student intern from Germany.
“Nature’s designs can be so stealth!” Alyssa Kanagaki ’10 said. Diseases spread so quickly that it is hard to believe that something as small as a bacterium could cause so much harm. Kanagaki’s internship this summer with Dr. Suckjoon Jun gave her the chance to explore these microscopic marvels more closely. Dr. Jun, a physicist who has recently turned to biology, wants to know how one cell becomes two cells. It’s not a simple question, nor does it have a simple answer. He and his team at Harvard University’s FAS Center for Systems Biology study this and other details of a cell’s life. 

More specifically, Dr. Jun’s lab seeks to understand the steps of the bacterial cell cycle, especially chromosome segregation. They are using E. coli as their experimental focus, and their microfluidic continuous culture device, Entrapped Cells Organized for Live Imaging (cleverly dubbed ECOLI) allows them to follow cell growth for many generations. The “causality” of the cell cycle is one of the main questions they wish to solve. 

Kanagaki and another interns spent time looking for the “force” that produces cell growth. What is the motivation behind their reproduction, and what is the source of that drive? How much force does a cell need to split? In the beginning, Kanagaki grew bacteria in liquid food and used a machine to measure the density of the sample. Then, she used a computer program called Igor Pro to graph the results. 

A few weeks later, Dr. Jun and his colleagues were ready for her to use the ECOLI device. Kanagaki watched about 100 “movies” depicting live cell division, then recorded how long the bacterium survived and how many generations it lasted. Through histograms and growth curves, she presented her findings to the research group. Her discoveries demonstrated to the team that each strain of E. coli has its own “personality” when it comes to reproduction. 

Following her cinematic journey, she turned to the lab and learned how to make the ECOLI device. She then applied cephalexin to the bacteria, which prevents it from dividing. Varying the flow of the cephalexin permitted her to see when and where the cell began to change shape, and what force provoked it. 

“It can be frustrating because sometimes I'd go in at 8:30 a.m. and not leave until 6 or 7 p.m., knowing that my results from the day were not reliable or couldn't be used because of mistakes that happened,” she said. “But I’ve learned that nothing is really wasted; you just build from where you left off.” 

Her internship offered her many benefits, learning experiences, and fun times. One week, she and her fellow researchers went to a local pub that was hosting a science event, where they spoke to other researchers about their projects. Kanagaki also met with other interns at Red Sox games or at their homes. She welcomed the opportunity to work with so many people of different cultures. 

One thing that she would not normally learn in the classroom that she learned in the lab is the pivotal role that documentation plays in research. Every day she would type a report of what she did and includes pictures and graphs. The team may need to reference her notes in the future when giving a presentation or working on their article that they hope will appear in Nature magazine. In addition, she has learned networking and software skills, as well as how to work with microscopes that are probably more expensive than her Hamilton education. 

Because the lab spends so much money just to have the right equipment, Kanagaki’s internship is unpaid. Although Harvard covered her living expenses she still needed financial support, so she applied for and received a stipend from the Jeffrey Fund for Science Internships, which supports full-time, off-campus internships related to science. She encourages students to visit all of their options, that way the people at the institution can put a name with a face. Just like in the college search, it also helps to see where you will be working, what you will be doing, and with whom. 

Kanagaki is not limiting herself to research careers after graduation. In fact, she is looking at some Masters of Public Health programs, such as those at Boston University and Harvard. She likes BU’s environmental health track, and aspires to work for FEMA. During her freshman year, she participated in Hamilton’s Alternative Spring Break program, which placed her in Biloxi, Miss. She worries about the way government handles disasters like Hurricane Katrina. “I’d like to change [that],” she said. “Many deaths could have been prevented had the government handled the situation better." 

Kanagaki is a graduate of West Springfield High School.
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