Mina Hibino was a freshman when she first started working on cancer research in a chemistry lab at the University of New Orleans. The junior chemistry major has been building her research experience ever since and talks about synthesizing nanoparticles made out of human serum albumin with the focused enthusiasm of someone who has discovered something she loves.
This summer, Hibino is one of five UNO undergraduates chosen for a new summer research internship at Ochsner Medical Center. Through the six-week program, pre-medical students are engaged in work that seeks to understand more about liver cancer recurrence, to improve care for babies and children with pulmonary health concerns and to help develop successful cancer therapies that will perform in a patient who has developed drug resistance.
“I am learning so much,” said Hibino, who was assigned to work in Ochsner’s Transplant Research Lab, which is part of the hospital’s Institute for Translational Research. Hibino spends her days isolating cancer stem cells from a line of malignant liver cells and culturing them in conditions that mimic metastasis, or cancer growth from a primary to a secondary site. The goal of her work is to try to identify, prior to transplantation, liver cancer patients who are at high risk of experiencing cancer recurrence after a transplant.
“I have learned a ton about the liver, cell lines and cultures, antibodies, proteins, general terminology, procedures for assays and experiments,” Hibino said. “Additionally, I have been learning about the complex liver transplantation process, including the waitlist process and different treatment options for patients with hepatocellular carcinoma before they receive a liver transplant.”
Dr. Kevin Conrad, medical director of community affairs and health policy at Ochsner, said the kind of experience Hibino is having is key for any undergraduate aspiring to go to medical school. Conrad attended UNO for four years in the 1980s before heading to medical school and then returned to the campus to get his M.B.A. in 1997. Conrad was instrumental in working with UNO’s College of Sciences to create the program. He said he’s found that UNO’s pre-medical students are highly motivated learners who don’t shy from challenging opportunities—important ingredients that go into making any internship program a success.
“The five students we got are outstanding,” Conrad said. “These are the kinds of students we want to have as employees one day. These are just the kind of people we want to be associated with.”
The other UNO students who were selected for the internship are Dayana Frazer, Neeha Mathew, Krystin LeCompte and Simon Nilsen Haugland. The program, which goes from May 30 to July 11, is open to rising sophomores, juniors and seniors studying biology or else who are on a pre-medical track and comes with a $2,500 stipend. Besides participating in hands-on research, students are paired with physicians or Ph.D.s for one-on-one mentoring. They attend medical student lectures, shadow doctors on rounds and have access to other professional development activities. At the end of the program, participants are expected to make a presentation and publish an abstract.
Steve Johnson, dean of the College of Sciences, said he hopes to be able to expand the internship program after this initial experience. “It’s a great opportunity to give our outstanding students real-life experiences in medical and health research, and also valuable experiences participating in rounds with doctors and residents,” Johnson said. “All of these students would like to enter medical school and this research internship will enhance their chances.”
Ochsner Health System is one of the largest independent academic health systems in the United States and Louisiana’s largest not-for-profit health system. It employs more than 17,000, has more than 2,500 affiliated physicians and Ochsner conducts more than 600 clinical research studies annually.
Hibino, who came to UNO from New Hampshire, said she was at first attracted to the University's campus because of its location in New Orleans, its proximity to Lake Pontchartrain and the fact that she would be able to have a dorm room to herself. Now 25, she worked after high school to save money for college and was looking for a university where she could fit in even though she was slightly older than the typical incoming freshman.
“But as I did further research,” she said, “I found it to be an excellent school, especially in the STEM departments, which appealed to me most. Looking back, I am so glad I was accepted by UNO and got to attend as a full-time student.”
Hibino, who is concentrating in biochemistry with a minor in biological sciences, said she found great support from UNO's faculty. Matthew Tarr, a chemistry professor who last spring was named vice president of research and economic development, encouraged her to apply to the College of Sciences Undergraduate Research Program when she was still a freshman. The resulting experience she had working in the department’s chemistry lab since the second semester of her freshman year laid the groundwork for her to feel confident applying for the Ochsner opportunity.
“UNO presents me with numerous opportunities every year to help me succeed in my next step of going to medical school and thrive as a student,” she said. “I am constantly reminded of how amazingly UNO has treated me.”