Monday, October 1, 2012

Verrazano UNCF/Merck Fellow - A Summer Research Experience

Evelyn Okeke
Evelyn Okeke, a Biology major in the Verrazano Class of 2013, was named a 2012 UNCF/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Fellow.  One of the benefits of this prestigious fellowship is the opportunity to participate in a summer internship at a Merck facility.  Evelyn shares more about her experience working at Merck this summer.

Through a research scholarship from UNCF/Merck, which I was awarded for the 2012-2013 academic year, I had the opportunity to research alongside scientists at one of the Merck facilities here in the United States.  Merck is one of the leading pharmaceutical companies in this country.
Research at Merck was a different experience for me.  During the academic year I conduct my research at the College of Staten Island in the neuroscience lab of Dr. Abdeslem El Idrissi, and last year during the summer of 2011, I had the opportunity to research in the Robinson lab at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. With my nearly two years of research experience in an academic setting, I've learned that most of the research in academia is for nonprofit.  In contrast, Merck is a private company and seeks to make a profit with their research efforts.  I was a little hesitant to accept this opportunity because I was unfamiliar with how research is conducted in a profit driven environment.  However, right away it was obvious that I had made the right decision to accept the UNCF/Merck scholarship and participate in the required internship at Merck.

Evelyn on the UNCF/Merck Fellows Day
I found that Merck is a wonderful place to be. There are a vast number of opportunities to grow professionally.  “Whatever you want to do, you can do it at Merck” was the motto I came up with, and it is really true. You don’t necessarily have to be a scientist to work there; but, if you are a scientist, doing your research at Merck is like being in heaven. They have laboratories with state of the art equipment and everything a scientist can dream of that helps you move along fast.  The research there is so much faster than in academia.  The overall atmosphere at Merck is great. The company offers a great package to its employees, and everyone who works at the Merck Research Laboratories is truly talented when it comes to their subject of expertise.
I spent the ten weeks of my summer internship In the department of Protein Sciences at the Merck Research Laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania.  I was working with a one-armed robot called “Piccolo."  This machine is a fully automated system for protein expression, cell growth, and protein purification. It was quite amazing to work with such a delicate and amazing piece of equipment.   In my project I had to optimize the recovery of HIS, GST, and AVI-tagged proteins using Piccolo, and at the end of my internship I had to give a presentation in which I presented my findings. While I was working on my project, I was able to expand my set of skills useful for working in the lab. For example, I learned how to culture cells, to induce protein expression, and to purify proteins.  This is everything Piccolo can do, but one can truly appreciate the robot if one knows what it takes to do it without the robot.
Forensic Science Fair

Evelyn (right) and colleagues
Starting from the first day of my internship, my mentor and my supervisor encouraged me to take advantage of everything Merck has to offer, and I really did.  Besides all the great department lunches and BBQs hosted by the Merck Research Laboratories, I visited the Merck Headquarter in Whitehouse Station, NJ.  I also requested to spend a day at their Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) facility to gain a deeper insight into the fields of Structural Biology and Chemistry. Furthermore, I had the chance to volunteer with other Merck employees at the Northen Children Services in Philadelphia, at which we hosted a Forensic Science Fair for the children in needs.
Overall, I had a great summer during which I expanded my knowledge and skill set.  I got to meet and work with great people, and this was an opportunity I am glad I took advantage of before I graduate.

To learn more about the UNCF/Merck Science Initiative, please visit

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