By Jacqueline Jeon-Chapman, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Marlborough resident Gregory Konar recently finished his internship in Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Craig Mello's laboratory at UMass Medical School. Konar began working there May 27, shortly after graduating from the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science.
“Working for Dr. Mello is quite the surreal experience,” Konar said. “I am actually getting the opportunity to work one-on-one with him on a few of his projects, something that not many interns have ever done.”
In 2006, Mello received the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his co-discovery of RNAi, interfering RNA strands that can be used for gene silencing.
“He is kind and very quick to teach you something new. His knowledge of everything going on in the lab is absolutely incredible, and I am soaking up everything he says and enjoying every minute of it,” Konar said.
In the laboratory, researchers have been studying the role of a gene in the development of worms, particularly in the embryonic stage.
On July 23, Konar presented what he learned to Mello and the rest of the laboratory team.
“I helped create a strain of worm that can be used to find new temperature-sensitive mutants to help understand the RNAe epigenetic pathway. This helps us understand better the mechanisms of epigenetic silencing,” Konar said. “Animals contain memories of previous gene expression, which can possibly get reactivated or silenced depending on the generation. The presence of RNAe silences the signal, and the absence of RNAe keeps the signal of the gene on.”
Before working in Mello's lab, Konar worked in a lab at UMass Medical School, studying cancer cells to characterize a drug that would track a protein turned off by many tumors.
“I initially started in the lab partially because my grandfather passed away from cancer in February of 2011. He was my inspiration in life and he was someone I looked up to a lot,” Konar said. “Every time I work with cancer cells, or find out something new in science, I do it in memory of him and do it with the mindset that anything I can contribute could possibly help people not lose loved ones.”
Konar also contributed to cancer research through his discoveries in science fair projects. In his sophomore year at Marlborough High School, he teamed up with two classmates to examine the effects of a natural plant root extract on migration and radiation induced cell death in ovarian cancer. They received a first-place award at their school fair, and then placed fourth out of 122 projects to qualify for the International Science Fair (ISEF).
“There, I had the chance to speak to like-minded people from all over the world about the current state of medicine and what was being done to help make a change. ISEF sophomore year absolutely changed my life, so much so that I transferred schools to a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] focused school that further accelerated my love for biology,” Konar noted.
In his junior and senior years at the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science, he again qualified for the ISEF, placing second and fifth, respectively. He also won a research scholarship award from the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
“It was great to finally hear my name being called and to get up on the stage in front of 1,700 other amazing presenters,” he recalled. “Even though I am unable to redeem this scholarship, just getting an award is redemption enough for all of my hard work.”
According to Konar, high school students have the opportunity to conduct research at local laboratories.
“I got this job shortly after Dr. Mello came to my school to speak through a program that brings Nobel laureates to local schools to talk to kids about scientific research,” Konar said. “I was a bit familiar with the concepts he was talking about, and contacted him shortly afterwards to set up a preliminary meeting.”
Each summer, Mello has students work in his lab. This summer, seven high school and college students worked alongside 12 post-doctorate and graduate student researchers and an assistant professor.
“If research interests you, emailing professors is a great thing,” Konar recommended. “Sending them a personalized email that shows that you are genuinely interested in what they are doing is the number one way to get them to accept you. This way, you can learn if research is actually what you want to do in your life, and what type you might be more drawn to.”
“Working in a lab for me feels less like a job and more like an extended adventure,” added Konar. “Each day I get to come into the lab and learn something brand new, whether it be from a failure or a success.”