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by Moneera Islam

Moneera Islam won a fifth-grade science fair prize and has been immersed in science ever since. She's worked at NIH and other labs since her sophomore year in high school, was an NIH MARC scholar during her college years at Howard University, from which she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biology and anthropology in June 1996. She is now in her second postbac year in the laboratory of NCI's Luigi De Luca and pursuing a master's degree in health policy at Johns Hopkins. She's intent on an M.D./Ph.D. program--what she calls the "best of both worlds."

Claude Bernard said that "man can learn nothing except by going from the known to the unknown." This reigning paradigm is what attracted me to do research at NIH. Working here through different programs since high school, I have found that NIH offers an optimal setting for students to thrive. The intellectual forces that interconnect mentors and students often spark new methods of attacking problems and interdisciplinary concepts enormously valuable to society.

I have been profoundly lucky. In my two years as a pre-IRTA, I have had as my mentor and role model Luigi De Luca, chief of the Differentiation Control Section at NCI's Laboratory of Cellular Carcinogenesis and Tumor Promotion--and the world-renowned expert in retinoid research. De Luca personifies the traits of the ideal mentor. He respects my cumulative knowledge enough to give me the responsibility to design my own project he sends me to conferences, allows me to review papers, shares a genuine interest in my goals, encourages oral presentations, always has time to hear my ideas despite his demanding schedule, offers me the opportunity to take Bio-Trac and FAES classes (of which I have availed myself), and continually makes me feel like an integral part of the lab and the research process. Naturally, everything is not always peachy, but, in the end, my mentor augments my experiences.

De Luca has walked me through the many steps that comprise medical research, from the conception of a hypothesis to the publication of results. He may not realize how exciting it was for me to see my first publication (M. Isogai et al.,"Expression of a dominant-negative retinoic acid receptor construct reduces retinoic acid metabolism and retinoic acid-induced inhibition of NIH-3T3 cell growth," Cancer Res 57:4460-4464, 1997). Coauthoring this study also gave me a sense of worth in that I may have contributed to an increased understanding of medicine.

NCI Postbac Moneera Islam

The research in my section of the lab is focused on vitamin A and its metabolites, which play a crucial role in regulating the differentiation and proliferation of epithelial cells, act as signaling molecules in embryogenesis, and are potent inducers of apoptosis. Vitamin A is an important factor during gestation, and one of its metabolites, retinoic acid (RA), is a potent teratogen. The effects of retinoids are thought to be mediated through RA, which binds to nuclear RA receptors that then interact with specific RA response elements. The potency of retinoids as differentiation agents has led to their successful use in treating some forms of cancer. My research examines the effects of retinoids on prostate and breast cancer.

As my research experiences have expanded, so have my thought processes slowly begun to change. Research requires the composure to gather the data and the creativity to interpret them correctly. Classroom concepts come alive in the laboratory, where research promotes learning by a process I call "creative playing," rather than by rote. Research has sharpened my observation skills and my ability to persevere presenting my research at meetings and convincing others of my data have surely contributed to the development of my own communication and persuasion skills. I have also gained insight into the relationship between basic science and health care and how scientific research can be used to study clinical problems.

Of course, the laboratory is also the setting for honing one's tolerance for frustration and disappointment. I have sensed some of the helplessness one feels when an experiment just will not work or when the actual results do not match what were reasonably foreseeable and expected. I have learned to value the explorative process as much as any "answer" I find. I have also begun to realize how research on a day-to-day basis evolves rather than explodes.

Learning is a privilege. Being surrounded by distinguished scientists and able to take advantage of lectures, seminars, and conferences at which such luminaries as Bert Vogelstein, Ian Wilmut, and David Baltimore have spoken is a privilege. Reading the publications of the scientists I have been working with, observing how their results and conclusions evolved, and discussing where their research is heading is a privilege.

Truly, NIH is the only enterprise in which one can pursue cutting-edge research, line dance with HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, hear a potpourri of languages from around the world, drop off receipts for "Apples for the Students," pray at the interfaith room, play volleyball on Wednesday nights, volunteer during lunchtime, order Kings Dominion tickets from the R&W, watch people go through e-mail withdrawal symptoms, see awesome pandas at the Children's Inn, have a friend who is a "normal" volunteer in a study, hear a Nobel laureate speak, realize you are not the only one who needs a life when you are looking for parking at midnight, wonder whether the shuttle you are riding is heading for any of the many construction ditches, and see NIH Director Harold Varmus with his L.L. Bean backpack riding his bike....should I go on?

I have come to regard NIH as my second home. I have adopted my colleagues as family. I even speak with an Italian/Japanese/Hungarian/Sri Lankan/Chinese, and, oh yes, an English twang. I have been nurtured and challenged here, but soon it will be time to "[go] from the known to the unknown," to go through NIH's exit door and into that other "real" world.

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