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Richters you should know: Brett Palmero and Anna Sandler

While some students laze around at home, Brett Palmero ’20 and Anna Sandler ’20 are spending the summer curing cancer in Professor of Biology Karen Kirk’s lab.

Q: Tell us about your Richter project.

Sandler: We are studying telomeres. Telomeres are a buffer zone at the end of chromosomes that allow cells to replicate without losing any important genetic information, which would be bad. But telomeres also shorten over time, and ultimately cells can’t replicate forever. Telomerase [an enzyme that adds nucleotides to telomeres, especially in cancer cells] helps maintain the length of your telomeres so that our cells can continue dividing healthily. We are studying how telomerase regulates their lengths and if there is any way we can continue the activity of telomerase.

Palmero: Our research on telomerase could eventually be used in future studies dealing with cancer cells or stress and aging. We want to keep our telomeres long, but high anxiety or stress can shorten telomeres quite a lot.

Sandler: If we know exactly the structure of telomerase, we can develop drugs to manipulate its function. We may want to increase the activity of telomerase because we don’t want our telomeres to shorten. Or we may want to reduce the activity of telomerase because cells can become cancerous if telomerase just keeps on allowing a cell to multiply.

Q: How did you learn about telomeres and telomerase?

Sandler: I really didn’t know anything about this, other than that telomeres were at the ends of chromosomes and that they had some kind of protective role. This summer Brett and I read some thesis work and heard lectures from our professor, which really helped, and lab work helped us understand and retain information even better than just reading about it.

Palmero: What helped me a lot, too, was watching Junya Li ’18, our peer mentor who was also working here the first few weeks, and following her lead. She taught us everything that we needed to know.

Q: What has been the most difficult part of this project?

Sandler: I think the biggest struggle sometimes is not seeing results or, worse, seeing contamination. You don’t know if you messed up or if there’s something else going wrong.

Palmero: It’s all about having the patience for failure and having the determination to do it again. About 90 percent of what I do is going to be messed up or contaminated, but the 10 percent is what I keep working for. I know overall that we’re bettering humanity, so it feels great to keep doing it and not only to learn but to contribute. The telomerase protein work that we are doing? Nobody has ever done it before. We’re doing original work and that’s just fascinating. I can tell my family I’m curing cancer.

Q: How do you like working with a professor?

Sandler: Professor Kirk answers all our questions, and she’s very open to us not knowing things. When we fail, she’s always willing to help us go back and find how we can improve. 

Palmero: Professor Kirk gives us so much support in what we are doing and is so knowledgeable. It’s not just a regular professor-student interaction. There’s a lot of kinship there.

Q: What is the future for this research?

Sandler: We’re thinking of writing a paper to submit to the school’s biology journal, Eukaryon, because we both love reading the articles by other students sharing their science work. And future students can use the work that we are doing to continue the research further and write theses.

Palmero: We could also try to present our work at the College’s Brain Awareness Week and at undergraduate conferences.

Q: How do you like the Richter program?

Sandler: I’m enjoying it because I think it’s a really good balance. I get to work and be busy and learn a lot and have fun during the week, but on the weekend I have lots of time to relax. I like that in my lab I can make my schedule the way I want to, so on Thursdays I can leave early to go volunteer.

Palmero: It allows me to do something that I can’t do during the school year, which is to work and learn without the anxiety of grades, tests, and homework looming over me. I can just do the research work and not be afraid to fail, especially because real success in the lab is just a bunch of failures stacked on top of one another. 

–By Tracy Koenn and Sophie Mucciaccio