On the soccer field, Molly Hancock is fast.
And endurance makes the Midland, Mich., native an effective forward for the Albion College women's soccer team, too.
In sitting across from Hancock, it doesn't take long to realize her mind works much like it does when she's in training or competition.
Last summer, however, Hancock had to train her mind to work in a linear fashion as a summer undergraduate research assistant in James Rae's lab at the University of Michigan.
Breast cancer, specifically the study of how cells respond to varying levels of estrogen and amino acids in the prediction of treatment response, is among the work done in Rae's lab.
After receiving training on lab techniques, which included reading papers and watching videos. She also received an orientation of the work being done in the lab, including an introduction on the cell lines, the estrogen degrader compounds currently being tested on cells, and why these compounds are better than drugs currently on the market. Hancock then went to work in toxicology research, determining the effectiveness of a drug on certain cell lines.
"Everything was difficult at first," Hancock admitted. "The amount of information I was getting at one point in time, and all the techniques I had to know – you have to remember every single step – it took time to get things down.
"The tricky part was culturing cells in sterile technique to keep bacteria out and avoid cross contamination," she added. "We would do dose response curves to see what concentration of the drug was most and least effective on the cells. You just keep progressing until you reach the best place, the best drug you can get."
To complete the process, Hancock learned to work incrementally. She would read a portion of information and then work on a chunk of the process of preparing cells or administering a dose of the estrogen degrading compound.
"We had long manuals to read and go step by step (through the process)," Hancock explained. "A lot of times Thomas (Gonzalez, a Ph.D. candidate who was her mentor in the lab) would be with me and I would ask, 'Do I have to do this?', and he would say 'Read what it says.' My mind is always working in 50,000 directions."
The value added, Hancock said, was being able to take part in meetings with the researchers in Rae's lab, in conferences with other principal investigators to learn about other breast cancer research and with the chemists who are making the estrogen degrader compounds.
While Hancock said it was 'cool' to get a set of data from her research, she also gained an appreciation for how quickly chemists are able to develop new estrogen degrader compounds.
A senior at Albion, Hancock is taking biochemistry as part of her fall semester course load. The experience she gained in the laboratory is translating to the classroom.
"The general knowledge we were using, whether it's the amino acids or western blot techniques, a technique for determining if you have a certain protein in your compound and how much is being expressed, I can visually see everything happening. I'm not just learning it. I can see what I was doing in the laboratory, as well."
Part of Hancock's decision to pursue the research assistant position in Ann Arbor came from a realization she had not studied biochemistry as she began studying for the Medical College Admission Test. She will likely sit for the MCAT in the spring before enjoying a capstone experience with her fellow seniors on the women's soccer team and saving money for the next step.
"I have a solid foundation going into the medical school interview process," Hancock said. "I have valuable experience with what goes on in a laboratory – on the surface level and the molecular level.
"But it also taught me about what I want to do," she added. "I enjoyed doing (research) and I would do it again, but I think next time I should look into patient care, see how I do in that field and compare the two. I don't have experience interacting with patients."
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