Left: Maria Benitez-Cortez; Middle: Amira Ellison; Right: Heidi Solis

Story by Gailen Greenstein

The Brotman Baty Institute helps not only to push the bounds of scientific knowledge and medicine, but it seeks to foster the same passion in the minds of the next generation.

Every summer BBI members select students ready and eager to deepen their knowledge and experience in medical research and provide the institute with valuable assistance. This year BBI has three undergraduate interns working at the Fred Hutch, Seattle Children’s Hospital, and the UW Medicine: Amira Ellison, Heidi Solis, and Maria E. Benitez-Cortez. Here, each one offers insights into their passions for their work.

Amira is a rising senior at Pennsylvania State University. She has been collaborating with BBI’s Dr. Lea Starita on cancerous PC9 cells, using prime editing to introduce drug resistant mutations into the genome of cells and then using drug expulsion to isolate the cells that were successfully edited. She is in the very beginning stages of trying to prove that multiplex editing is possible through prime editing.

After most of her labs at Penn State went virtual and became more computational, she was eager to participate in a wet lab and work with cells in a new way. Asked when her interest in biology began, she looked back to her junior year of high school. Beyond the “introductory” and “mundane” required class material, her fascination didn’t really start until her teacher asked each student to select a book pertaining to the course. She chose “The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It.” Little did she know, the book would act as a catalyst to study biology with a focus on genetics. While her initial thought was to pursue medical school, her focus has since shifted toward research. Following graduation next year, she plans on taking a few years to gain experience before applying to graduate school.

Heidi, also a rising senior at California State University, Sacramento, is majoring in Biological Sciences, Cell, and Molecular Biology. She has been working in the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center Summer Undergraduate Research Experience. From wet labs versus computational labs, to academia versus industry, Heidi is eager to use this internship to further her experience and gain clarity in what she wants beyond college. She has been working with Dr. Jason Bielas researching the mutations in mitochondrial DNA and cell response to chemotherapeutic drugs.

In addition, Heidi is gaining insights and exposure into the process of getting research published. “Pushed back and pushing forward,” she said, describing the process of problem-solving and attaining project goals that contribute to having a study published in a peer reviewed journal.

Throughout high school, she sought a future in medicine – potentially nursing. However, it wasn’t until college that she began contemplating a future in research. Heidi found her passion for genetics after forming a particularly strong connection with a Puerto Rican professor. She recounts that her professor would occasionally forget words in English and, as a native Spanish speaker herself, it gave her a sense of comfort and inspired her that she too could keep learning and thriving in the field. In addition to being a first-generation college student, she is also the only one of her siblings in the STEM field. As she prepares to enter her senior year with experience in medical assistance and research, she is setting out to discover next steps where she wants her passion in genetics to take her.

Maria, who graduated this spring from Pacific Lutheran University with a BA in Biology has been working for the Seattle Children’s Hospital under Dr. Alexis Kaushansky, helping advance malaria research. She is working on the automation of a mosquito aspirator. Creating each prototype involves several adjustments and skills, such as computer-aided designs, 3D printed models while using fusion 360 software, and circuit rearrangement using DC power supplies. With a general biology degree, working on the engineering side has forced her out of her comfort zone and provided her with new skills. However, with interests that span healthcare and medicine to political science, Maria is no stranger to exploring new topics and fields.

With little exposure to lab work because of her school’s COVID-19 restrictions, the collaborative environment of research and constant interactions with people at Seattle Children’s have helped her find her footing. Following this internship, she would love to continue working at Seattle Children’s. As she looks to her future with medical school on the horizon, she intends to take time after completing her undergraduate studies to ensure that it is the path she wants to take. In her words, the work she has been doing, “It’s something new to me and that I love doing.”

Each of these interns brings their own stories, interests, and valued skill sets. They carry a passion for genetics and a love of research. Throughout the summer, they have been valuable members of the BBI community and have worked hard to advance the institute’s mission: pushing the envelope on scientific innovation and precision medicine.

Gailen Greenstein graduated from Seattle Academy in June of this year and is taking a “gap year” before beginning undergraduate studies in the fall of 2022 at Harvard University.