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News

Northeastern co-op fulfills childhood dream by working at NASA

Mya Karinchak visited Kennedy Space Center for the first time when she was in middle school. She entered the center’s planetary theater and although it only played a 15-minute video about NASA, Karinchak walked out completely changed.

“By the end of it I had tears in my eyes,” Karinchak recalls. “I was just so in awe, and I think I told my mom, ‘I really want to end up here somehow.’”

This summer, Karinchak’s dream came true. A fourth-year physics student at Northeastern, Karinchak landed a co-op at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, working to predict solar winds and explore their impact on Mars.

“I’ve just always said, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll end up at NASA,’ not knowing if that would ever happen,” Karinchak says. “It was a dream of mine, not something I thought I would get into this early in my life, honestly.”

Karinchak works on the heliophysics–solar physics–team, and her work with a predictive tool called the Wang-Sheeley-Arge model is already leaving a mark on NASA. The WSA model is able to predict solar wind parameters, such as the polarity of the sun’s interplanetary magnetic field in its inner heliosphere and the velocity of solar wind. Karinchak’s work will help determine the most accurate predictions for these parameters and their impacts on the red planet, which can be significant due to the conditions around Mars, she says.

“Mars lacks an intrinsic global magnetic field, so any time solar wind comes to Mars it’s shaping the magnetosphere differently,” Karinchak says. “Every time something brushes past the Martian magnetosphere, it is constantly changing around that.”

By comparing solar wind polarity and velocity predictions with those observed at Martian spacecraft, NASA can also gain new insights into Mars. That information becomes even more relevant as NASA moves forward with plans to send astronauts to Mars.

“When we have these predictions, it’s basically giving more background to what’s happening around Mars,” Karinchak says. “Solar winds affecting the Martian magnetosphere can lead to things like planetary ion escape, which leads to Martian atmospheric erosion, so that’s one application of finding more context around the solar winds and getting more accurate predictions.”

Karinchak still has three months left in her co-op, but she already feels like she’s gained a lot from the experience. More than anything, her passion for science has been reaffirmed by working with the talented scientists at NASA.

“The inspiring passion and affinity of people that work at NASA just for science or whatever they’re working on, whatever their specific project is–it’s just something that brings everyone together,” Karinchak says.

Her co-workers at NASA have also helped give her a new perspective on her future. Karinchak is entering the final year of her undergraduate education at Northeastern–and is on track to the mechanical engineering PlusOne graduate program. The future is coming up fast, but Karinchak feels that her experience at NASA has helped her learn that the path to success is far from linear.

“I feel like it’s always encouraging to hear from Ph.D. scientists at NASA who have done years of research and have relevant experience that ‘I didn’t have a linear path. Explore your interests. There’s always a lot of ways things can go, and you can’t predict that.,’” Karinchak says.

“I don’t want to put too much pressure on my path. I just want to see where things take me. I want to stay true to my passion and then that can lead the way.”

This article originally appeared on [email protected]

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

September 23, 2022

Could a pill help prevent a leading cause of childhood mortality?

Across much of the world, childhood diarrhea is a major killer. Could a probiotic pill somehow be engineered to help stop the scourge in its tracks?

Scientists in Neel Joshi’s laboratory at Northeastern University are a step closer to developing such a remedy, according to a paper published in the Sept. 15 edition of the PLOS Pathogens journal.

The paper’s findings describe a new engineered probiotic treatment that would produce a “microbial net” studded with antibody proteins that would prevent illness by binding with pathogens that cause enteric diseases, says Joshi, associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology.

The idea is for the engineered treatment to be delivered orally. It would start working as soon as it hit the digestive system, Joshi says. “Our product is like a little factory that makes the drug inside the colon.”

The newly published research by Northeastern University in collaboration with the Tufts schools of medicine and of veterinary medicine proves that the concept works in the lab, says Ilia Gelfat, who took part in the research as a visiting scholar at Northeastern University.

The next step is to demonstrate that it works in live animals, Gelfat says.

“That’s something that’s in our immediate future plans,” Joshi says.

“It’s exciting because some pathogens, like Cryptosporidium, don’t have many options for treatment and others are starting to gain resistance against existing treatments,” Gelfat says.

Diarrhea caused by enteric diseases is the second leading cause of childhood death in the world, killing more than 2,000 children a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The overwhelming majority of the deaths are in low-income nations where clean water and proper sanitation are often not available.

“Globally, it’s a very big problem,” Gelfat says, adding that enteric diseases mostly kill children under the age of 5.

“Some effective vaccines exist, but not for many of the most relevant bacterial and parasitic pathogens, so alternative strategies are in high demand,” Joshi says.

Tufts scientists in the Charles Shoemaker and John Leong labs have come up with a way to harvest special antibody sequences, known as VHHs, from immunized alpacas to bind to some of the most prevalent disease-causing pathogens that plague young children from low-income countries, Joshi says. The pathogens include the Shigella bacterium and the Cryptosporidium parasite.

Joshi’s lab came up with a way to program a probiotic beneficial bacteria known as E. coli Nissle to both produce VHH antibodies and to secrete biofilm to make fibers, known as curli fiber, for the netlike scaffolding on which antibodies lie in wait for pathogens, Gelfat says.

“Imagine a net. Now you have a bunch of magnets on the net,” Gelfat says.

The research published in PLOS Pathogens took years to finish and started when Joshi and Gelfat were at Harvard University, where Gelfat was Joshi’s Ph.D. student. Joshi moved his lab to Northeastern in early 2020.

The PLOS Pathogens paper leverages the expertise of Tufts scientists to find new VHH antibodies that bind new targets and validate them, Gelfat says. In a nutshell, the process involves immunizing alpacas against pathogenic targets, waiting for them to develop antibodies and taking and screening their blood, he says.

“It’s basically like drawing a blood sample when we donate blood,” Gelfat says.

Why alpacas?

It turns out that camelid species including alpacas and llamas make a very simple type of antibody that even bacteria—including beneficial bacteria—can be engineered to produce, Gelfat says.

Normally therapeutic proteins such as VHH antibodies have to be delivered by injection—think of the medicine Humira, Joshi says. He says the process “is not viable for widespread distribution in poorer countries.”

Engineering the probiotic E. coli Nissle to produce the VHHs, also known as nanobodies, in the gut solves that problem and creates the opportunity for an oral therapeutic, Joshi says.

“It’s a delivery vehicle that allows the protein to reach the lower intestine,” he says.

Joshi says he has used a similar platform to develop a possible treatment for inflammatory bowel disease under the auspices of Tantu Therapeutics, which received seed money from Northeastern to get off the ground.

In the future so-called living biotherapeutics might be used to treat traveler’s diarrhea, Joshi says. “I think it’s a versatile platform for treating lots of things in the gut.”

This article originally appeared on [email protected]

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.
September 20, 2022

How quantum physicists are looking for life on exoplanets

The world that quantum physicists study with a trained eye is the very same world that we non-scientists navigate every day. The only difference is that it’s been magnified to scales incomprehensibly small and large.

Still, quantum physics remains largely a murky subject—even for scientifically astute readers. [email protected] spoke to Gregory Fiete, a physics professor at Northeastern, about some of the broad applications of quantum research, from developing renewable energy sources and building more powerful computers, to advancing humanity’s quest to discover life beyond the solar system. Fiete’s comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Read more on [email protected].

Photo by Getty Images.
September 19, 2022

Q&A with Jihoon Jun, BA in Biology

Jihoon Jun is currently enrolled in the biology program and will be graduating in 2023. Learn about his experience in the program.

Jihoon JunQ: What is your major, and when are you graduating?

I’m a Biology major on the Predental track, graduating in 2023.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue this major?

Knowing I wanted to take a Pre-Health/Dental path, I initially came into Northeastern as a chemistry major – a subject I was passionate about in high school. However, I realized that the wide facets of chemistry weren’t as interesting to me, so I decided to explore a different field. In high school, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the finite biology curriculum.

It was through the College of Science curriculum, including the plethora of courses and research projects I took part in, that I realized my true passions were, in fact, rooted in biology.

Q: What did you decide to enroll at the College of Science at Northeastern?

I was very hesitant coming into college. I firmly envisioned myself in a health profession, but I didn’t know exactly what my future endeavors were. I found that the College of Science gave me the freedom to explore various fields and majors so that I could find my passion. And that’s what prompted me to enroll in the College of Science at Northeastern.

Q: Tell us about your co-op experience at Tufts Medical Center. What did you do during your time there?

For my first co-op, I worked in the Emergency Room at Tufts Medical Center. My assigned role was a Unit Coordinator/Nursing Service Assistant (UC/NSA). Half of the days would be at the desk where the ER would essentially “run through me”.

This included directing patient placements across the hospital, paging various residents and doctors for nurses, physician assistants, and providers, as well as communicating with various ambulances and MedFlight.

The other half of my time was more patient-based. I worked alongside doctors and nurses to assist them with cases that could range anywhere from a small cut to various levels of trauma.

Q: What was your most rewarding moment from this co-op experience?

The number one question or comment I get asked from my peers is, “you’re dental, so why the ER?”. I’ve always wanted to see what it was like working in an ER, and I think that’s the beauty of Northeastern co-ops. The majority of upperclassmen I’ve talked to stated that they used their first co-op to experience a new field and get a firm affirmation or refutation of whether this would be something they wanted to pursue.

The most rewarding aspect of my co-op had to have been the connections I made in the ER. During the first week, I distinctly remember having the mindset of just forcefully pushing through for six months and applying for a more dental-focused co-op next time. But I can’t emphasize enough how welcoming the whole ER team was to me.

Every single person would greet one another, and because the environment was so demanding, our co-op advisors would consistently check in with not only the students like me, but also the nurses and providers. There was a true spirit teamwork and harmony that existed between everyone involved.
We did get various dental cases in the ER, so I made sure to introduce myself to all the dental residents. It all started with a simple “hello” but got to the point where I shook hands with some and even exchanged contact information with others. The connections I made are so invaluable and my experience at Tufts Medical Center exceeded my hopes and expectations.

Q: How do you believe this co-op will enhance your overall COS experience?

One of my Biochemistry professors at Northeastern stated at the beginning of the semester: “However much you put in, you’ll get that much in return.” I was able to truly understand this during my time at Tufts Medical Center.

For example, after one of my routine 12-hour shifts at the ER, I was ready to go home and rest (as one can expect). However, the moment I was ready to clock out, a 76-year-old woman came in with severe facial trauma. The local resident on call for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery was an individual who I gradually grew very close with. The resident saw me packed up, and asked if I wanted to hop into the room with him.

The resident allowed me to assist him in the room, watching him communicate a plan for treating his patient with his chief. After two hours, the woman’s smile was restored. It was quite intriguing since this type of experience was not something I thought I’d ever see in an ER. If I had gone home that day, I would’ve lost the valuable chance to assist with the dental emergency patient.

Seeing that my first co-op and COS professors all embody such a true principle regarding effort and results affirms that I’m in the right college here at Northeastern. It only makes me look forward to the positive I’ll have at my second co-op.

Q: Tell us about your campus involvement, including leading the Northeastern Pre-Dental Association.

This year I have the privilege and honor of leading the Northeastern Pre-Dental Association as the president. Our club is filled with passionate leaders and members who encourage and guide each other. We host a variety of activities including lectures from guest doctors, Q&A sessions with various dental schools across the country, and our own co-op student panel to get student perspectives. I’m proud to be part of a club that’s so dedicated to its members.

Q: Are you currently involved with any research opportunities?

I work closely with the American Lung Cancer Screening Initiative, a team that advocates for the importance of lung cancer awareness as well as lung cancer screening. Although not necessarily traditional lab work, I found that our team’s nationwide presence, as well as presence within the political world, was something I couldn’t miss out on.

Being able to leave our research effort’s marks within the political world through State Proclamations as well as House and Senate Resolutions are only some of the many attributes our organization has achieved.

I also have the responsibility of leading the design and creation of our team’s website, as well as coordinating events when hosting various doctors and organizations.

Moreover, I am working with my close mentors from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital on another research project looking to implement AI within lung surgeries. We are currently working alongside schools, such as the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and are awaiting a possible publication!

Q: What are your plans for the summer?

My plans for the summer are to complete my second co-op at Carr Dental Assocations, during which I’ll be a licensed Dental Assistant.
The dental co-ops on the Northeastern Database are very limited, primarily due to location, and so I wanted to attempt to create one. I started by simply searching “Dentists near Me” on the internet. I emailed multiple offices I was interested in; however, I didn’t get many replies. I was very distraught.

But I then remembered the dental residents I worked alongside at Tufts Medical Center ER and through their connections I awas referred to the office manager of Carr Dental Associates. Tt’s without a doubt that I realized my sacrifices and experiences at Tufts were paying off.

I received an interview opportunity at Carr Dental Associates and earned the doctor’s trust to go create a co-op for the Fall. I’m excited to work alongside the various doctors at the practice and to share the wonderful stories and experiences upon completion at the end of the year.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

From my past experiences at Northeastern, the one phrase that helped me a lot through stressful times was “you’re doing well.” And so, whether I’m saying it as an upperclassman to a student or a fellow peer, I want to encourage you that “you’re doing well”. That one grade, one class is not going to define who you are unless you let it.

With that, I’d also love to thank my co-op Professor Tina Mello, as well as Ms. Elizabeth Merino, for being so patient with me while I tried to express my experiences as best as I could- I’m truly grateful and honored!

Looking forward to possibly seeing some of you around campus!

September 16, 2022

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