Six Questions with Sophie Costan '19

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Sophie Costan, Biology '19 spent the summer completing a Psychiatric Genetics Internship at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, PA. We caught up with Sophie to see what she got out of her unique summer internship experience. 

How did you find out about the internship at Penn State College of Medicine and what was the application process like?
I found out about this internship by searching online for biology Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU’s) and looked at the different specialties each institution offered. I was interested in cell and molecular biology/biochemistry, and Penn State College of Medicine had great programs in those fields. I ended up applying to several programs throughout the country, which was time-consuming but definitely worth it in the end! The application process was similar to most other internship opportunities; I sent the university a personal statement describing my interests and why I thought I would be a good candidate for the program, I sent in my transcript, and I requested letters of recommendation letters from professors I am close with. I was very lucky during this whole process because my advisor, Dr. Pierette Appasamy, assistant professor of biology, was willing to proofread my application and give helpful suggestions. I submitted my application in early February, and I heard back from the director of the program by late March.

Could you explain psychiatric genetics in layperson’s terms?
We are made up of trillions of cells, and those cells have genes that code for proteins that do pretty much everything in our bodies, from breaking down food in our GI tract, to letting us contract our muscles when we exercise. Genetics is the study of all of these genes, how they function, and how certain combinations of genes are passed to us by our parents. Psychiatry is a broad focus of study that encompasses mental health and behavior. This summer, I worked on a psychiatric genetics project that aimed to investigate how certain human genes can impact our behavior and mental health.

Specifically, I looked at different versions of the human serotonin transporter gene, which allows a transporter protein to pull serotonin back into a neuron. How much/little of the serotonin that is released can have major impacts on a person’s personality and mood, and specific versions of the gene have been linked to a person developing anxiety and/or an opioid addiction. 

What did a typical day at your internship look like?
In the mornings, I met with my mentor and would then start with that day’s lab experiments. Some days I did gel or capillary electrophoresis, experiments where you take a sample that has DNA in it and separate the DNA based on the size fragments and/or charge of the DNA pieces. Other days I did Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)—where you can make millions of copies of a specific DNA fragment or gene—and DNA quantification, which involves using specific wavelengths of light that are sent through a patient sample. I also attended departmental meetings, research seminars, and info sessions on how to apply for medical and graduate school.

What was one tangible achievement or outcome from the work you did this summer?
At the end of the summer, I gave a poster presentation to the other interns and faculty members. This was a really nice opportunity for all of us to talk about our work in front of a broader audience. I am really proud of the work I got to do this summer, and I was excited to share it with my friends and colleagues. 

What are your post-college career aspirations and how did your internship impact them?
My long-term goal is to become a physician. I've dreamed about nothing else since i was 12. Right now, I am mainly interested in endocrinology or psychiatry, but I am open to other specialties as well. My internship definitely cemented in my mind that I want to be involved in the healthcare field and knowing that my presence is directly helping people. The work my mentor and I did this summer has very clinical significance, and will hopefully advance solutions for the mental health and addiction epidemics the country is currently facing. While I mainly just want to have interactions with patients in my daily life, I realized from this experience that I would also like to incorporate research into my career. 

Do you have any advice for first-year Chatham students?
Get involved in activities as early as possible! Your first year is the best time to start making your own unique mark at Chatham, so I would definitely encourage you to get an on-campus job (I work at the Chatham library, and it’s seriously the best place to work) or join a club. Also, be passionate about something! Don't worry about it being too nerdy or that people won't "get it." I've learned firsthand during my time here that If you show people your true interests, you instantly light up and people will be drawn to your energy. Most importantly, take care of yourself. Transitioning to college for the first time can be really difficult, so don’t be afraid to reach out and get help if you are struggling with something.