Cameron Young COE/COS’21, Chemical Engineering/Biochemistry
What was your experience like at Professor Ambika Bajpayee’s Northeastern University lab?
I couldn’t have asked for a better first research experience than the one I had in Professor Bajpayee’s lab at Northeastern. I started working with her during my freshman year after receiving an Honors Early research Award through the Honors Program. During the beginning of my time in the lab, I assumed the role of the stereotypical undergraduate research assistant: helping the graduate students and doing a lot of necessary, basic tasks around the lab. But as I spent more and more time there, I learned so much about the lab research and started to ask my questions and propose my experiments and ideas.
Professor Bajpayee was incredibly open to having me take on an independent project. I applied for funding through the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships to kickstart that project and pursued a directed research class. During this time, Professor Bajpayee encouraged autonomous leadership of the project and to think like a graduate researcher. This experience was instrumental in helping me become the researcher I am today as I learned so much about academic research, independent scientific thinking, and problem-solving. Professor Bajpayee was an incredible mentor to many other students and me, and I’m very thankful that I could find this opportunity so early on in my career at Northeastern.
You’ve experienced undergraduate research opportunities with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, MIT, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Boston Children’s Hospital. Tell us about these experiences.
At Brigham and Women’s and MIT, I worked in clinical research in radiation oncology. My primary research project was developing a novel class of personalized radioprotective devices that could mitigate the harmful side effects of radiation therapy for patients receiving cancer treatment. I worked in a large lab led by Professor Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist, and mechanical engineering professor. His work focused mainly on incorporating engineering into medicine, and this opportunity was a perfect fit for me and my career research goals. In the lab, I had a lot of autonomy and the ability to make my own decisions and solve problems as they arose. Through this constant problem-solving, trial and error, and success and failure, I learned to be a successful researcher and made several meaningful contributions to lab efforts.
For my second co-op, I accepted a position in the lab of Dr. Adrienne Randolph, whose research expertise is in influenza. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, her research focused on severe pediatric COVID-19-related illness. Dr. Randolph leads an extensive, multicenter network of pediatric hospitals that collaborate and share data on patient cases to better understand emerging diseases like COVID-19. The CDC funded this work, and we worked very closely with officials from this organization to understand COVID-19 better together. One unexpected challenge was identifying multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a severe postinfectious complication that some children experience after COVID-19 infection. It was unique to join the leading officials to understand, address, and treat this severe and unknown disease.
Can you speak about your research on MIS-C?
MIS-C is a rare post-infectious hyperimmune response that some children experience after exposure to SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. This illness presents four to six weeks after the initial COVID infection and is characterized by severe inflammation and rashes all over the body, persistent fever, and in extreme cases, heart failure and shock. Many of these children are in the ICU for long periods and require intensive treatment to mitigate their symptoms. This illness appeared out of nowhere during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and stumped many pediatric infectious diseases and critical care experts. As a member of Dr. Randolph’s lab at Boston Children’s, I’ve had the unique opportunity to be at the forefront of MIS-C research. We have worked with more than 70 medical centers across the country, collecting patient case report data and analyzing the results to better characterize, treat, and understand this unknown illness. We’ve made several impactful findings regarding MIS-C through this work, including identifying factors that contribute to severe disease, analyzing effective treatment strategies, and showing that there are predictable sub-phenotypes of illness. It’s been amazing to witness the thought process that these leading infectious disease experts go through daily as they work to understand a previously unknown condition. Additionally, it has been incredible to be a small part of the solution to understand and treat the tens of thousands of our children worldwide with MIS-C.
How has your research with different institutions shaped your academic career?
It’s been beneficial to experience multiple perspectives at different institutions and with various mentors and lab personnel. Each lab and research group has its own feel, culture, and mentality, and as a researcher, it’s essential to figure out what works best for you and what types of people and environments you prefer. These experiences in different places have exposed me to many diverse mentorship styles, settings, and cultures and helped me fine-tune who I am as a researcher, what I’m looking for, and how I can be my best in the lab. We’re so lucky to be in Boston – a city with a wealth of biomedical research, resources, and world-renowned institutions. It’s an amazing opportunity to be a part of cutting-edge and groundbreaking science.
What has been your most rewarding moment as an undergraduate student?
The most rewarding and exciting moment during my undergraduate career was when I accepted my first co-op. Before the co-op application process, I had little experience talking about research and advocating for myself in a professional matter. It was a very eye-opening learning experience to go through the interview process and speak about my strengths, accomplishments, weaknesses, and areas that I needed to improve. Looking back, this was the first time I really reflected on myself and who I was not only as a researcher, scientist, and engineer but also as an individual. It was very exciting when all of these thoughts and ideas came across positively, and I was offered a position in my first co-op lab, which I then accepted and thoroughly enjoyed.
What areas of research would you like to focus on in the future?
Cancer is incredibly complex. This diverse collection of diseases features a never-ending assortment of clinical manifestations; molecular, genetic, and environmental mechanisms; and responses to therapeutic strategies. Simply put, each case of cancer and the individual associated with it is unique. The ever-growing field of oncology contains a vast number of treatments, yet many patients continue to receive a “one-size-fits-all” approach. There is tremendous potential to develop precision and personalized cancer therapeutics that harness each patient’s individual disease characteristics to better target and address their specific condition. This represents a monumental challenge but has the power to improve outcomes for millions of cancer patients each year. One primary objective I have identified for my future medical career is to create the next generation of precision and personalized cancer therapeutics.
How have your interdisciplinary studies advanced your professional career?
The combined major in chemical engineering and biochemistry has been a really unique opportunity for me to really explore all of my engineering and scientific interests during my undergraduate career. Engineering is a very math-heavy and problem-solving-focused set of courses. In contrast, science classes provide information on medicine’s molecular and chemical basis, which I find very interesting. It has been great to obtain the content knowledge in the sciences from all the science classes I’ve taken and then apply my engineering thinking and problem-solving mindset to address significant challenges through my research. I think this interdisciplinary study has been incredibly beneficial in helping me combine all of my interests and passions. Additionally, it has helped me uncover new research areas and questions. Finally, this interdisciplinary study has exposed me to individuals from all different backgrounds and areas of expertise. Being a part of these different groups has taught me how to communicate with scientists, engineers, and physicians alike.
What is it like to find out you were nominated for the Churchill Scholarship?
I was honored to find out I was nominated for the Churchill Scholarship. I’ve always looked up to my peers who have been nominated for these prestigious post-graduate fellowships, and it’s incredible to finally be the one in their shoes. I think this represents a culmination of all of my research experiences at Northeastern, and it’s truly an honor to be recognized in this way. In addition, this scholarship is a unique opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom for a year, something I’ve never done before and something that I didn’t necessarily plan to do. So, in a way, this scholarship could represent a new opportunity and a change in life trajectory that I didn’t expect.
Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University.