By Lyndsey Garcia

“Hey, I ran one of those tests in my lab!” Zach whispered to me during biology lecture. I give him a sideways look, because I definitely didn’t recall running a Southern blot in our assigned lab section. But then I realized that he was referring to the lab that he works in on campus.

Zachary Visco presenting research at the Duke Cancer Institute Annual Retreat

Zachary Visco presenting research at the Duke Cancer Institute Annual Retreat

Zachary Visco is a sophomore biomedical engineering major on the pre-health track. After hours of hunting through job listings and emailing lab managers, he finally landed a position of working in an ovarian cancer research lab on campus led by Dr. Susan Murphy and Dr. Andrew Berchuck this past summer.

Having only a year of undergraduate education under his belt, he found some of the concepts and techniques in his new job over his head.

“I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have any lab experience, but my boss, Dr. Zhiqing Huang, was very patient and walked me through everything,” Zach explained.

As Zach gained more experience in the lab, he started performing more experiments and gaining more responsibility. He would typically perform experiments that ranged from Western Blots, to cDNA preps, to real-time PCR. He was started to gain knowledge of how the pieces worked, but didn’t understand everything behind the science. However, Zach found in his class lectures, he was actually learning about concepts that pertained to his lab.

“Biology has helped explain some of the terminology and processes performed in lab, and organic chemistry has helped explain how and why some of the reactions occur,” he said.

For instance, he learned about the significance of cDNA and the information that can be determined from it. In his lab, he learned that running cDNA preps involved transcribing cDNA from mature RNA in order to perform a real-time PCR. In biology lecture, he learned why his lab would use cDNA instead of normal template DNA because mature RNA only expresses the exon, or the actual genes in our DNA, therefore the cDNA would only express the genes as well.

“I had hoped that I would eventually gain an understanding of the lab work during my undergrad, but when I first started, it all seemed very overwhelming,” Zach said. “I was pleasantly surprised when I found that I could actually apply knowledge from my classes to my work. It made it seem like I was finally learning material that could pertain to my career, not just trying to pass a weed-out class.”

Zach has found that working in the lab and the material taught in his classes has influenced his career path more than he realized. He had previously only imagined himself working in clinic-based research, but is now considering a path in lab-based research.

“I find lab research very interesting because it’s like a puzzle and you are trying to figure out the pieces as you go.”