Karen Gomez, CST '17. Next stop: MD/PhD

Young researcher headed to Columbia University MD/PhD program

Why did you pick Temple?

I was interested in Temple due to the variety of academic, research, and volunteering opportunities available in a large city university. A major factor in my decision was that I was offered the President’s Scholar Award, which covered the full cost of tuition and gave me three summer stipends to use for research or study abroad. 

What have been some activities at Temple you found most influential?

The most influential activity I have been a part of is CST’s Undergraduate Research Program. The experience that I gained was what inspired me to pursue a career in biomedical research as a physician scientist.

How did you get involved in research?

In 2014, I was accepted into CST’s Science Scholars Program, which provides high-achieving students in the colelge with the resources to pursue a career in scientific research. That fall, I joined the computational biology lab of Dr. Sudhir Kumar in the Institute for Genomics and Evolutionary Medicine (iGEM). I was initially interested in the lab because they had done a lot of work studying evolution, and I wanted to learn more about how evolutionary principles can be applied to human health and disease. Shortly after I joined the lab, I got involved with a new project studying evolution in cancer. 

What projects did you contribute to in the lab?

The first project I worked on was helping to design new computational methods to reconstruct evolutionary histories of tumors. A tumor is made up of many genetically distinct cell populations, or clones, that evolve over time. This concept, known as intratumor heterogeneity, is a big reason why some cancers resist treatment or come back (recurrence). Right now, it is difficult to distinguish the clonal composition of a tumor because most of the genetic information we have comes from bulk sequencing, where different clones are mixed together. So, we developed a new method that infers the genotypes and frequencies of individual clones within a tumor given bulk sequencing from multiple sectors of the tumor. 

What other factors have been influential in your career development?

In my junior year I was accepted into Temple MARC (Maximizing Access to Research Careers) program, led by Dr. Jacqueline Tanaka in the Department of Biology. MARC is an NIH-funded trainee program for students from underrepresented backgrounds who plan to go into biomedical research careers.  It provided me with guidance and support regarding my future career plans. I knew I wanted to continue doing research, and I ultimately decided to pursue an MD-PhD because I want to translate discoveries made in the lab into new personalized treatment options for patients fighting diseases like cancer.

What has been the outcome of the research you have done in CST?

I have given presentations at multiple national and international scientific conferences. In 2015, I presented a poster at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution in Vienna. That same year, I gave an oral presentation at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle. Most recently, I gave a poster presentation at the Annual Meeting for the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C. I have contributed to two research article manuscripts, one of which has just been submitted for publication.

What are your interests outside of research?

I minored in Spanish, and I studied abroad in Oviedo, Spain the summer after my freshman year. I have been a Resident Assistant for two years, and I am the co-president of the undergraduate chapter of the Temple University American Medical Student Association (AMSA).

What’s next after Temple?

I will be matriculating into the Columbia University MD-PhD program, an NIH-funded Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). The program includes full tuition for medical and graduate school as well as an annual living stipend. I plan to continue studying new ways of interpreting and analyzing large scale biological data sets to make advances in medicine.

-Romsin Zaya from CST’s STEM ED network assisted with this interview