Q&A: Junior experiments with DNA, plasmids during internship in Stanford University’s Weissman lab

Junior Allison Zhang began her internship at Stanford University in the middle of June and will end Aug. 18. She has been working in the Weissman research lab for postdoc Krzysztof Szade, researching and conducting experiments on stem cells.


Q: What research are you involved in?

A: The Weissman lab is focused on stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. Krzysztof has been working specifically on the niche of stem cells in bone marrow, so basically where stem cells live and what affects that niche. And then he’s also looking at mobilization of stem cells. So if you get stem cells to mobilize and go into the bloodstream, how that affects the number of stem cells and what other molecules are present there.


(Photo used by permission of Zhang)
After growing modified plasmids in bacteria, junior Allison Zhang isolates the plasmids by doing “Maxi prep.” This will give her 1 milliliter of the DNA.

Q: What are you working on in the lab?

A: The undergrad who I am mostly working with is Joseph; he is going to be a sophomore at Stanford. I’ve kind of latched onto him and helped him with what he’s doing.

He’s trying to clone specific strands of DNA into one big plasmid. Plasmids are basically a blank sheet of paper that you can clone specific strands of DNA with. They hadn’t actually gotten a plasmid that accepted DNA until the second day I got there. They were just trying a new one, and it finally worked. We got little bacteria colonies. And so they were all really happy.

From then on we’ve been trying to add new genes and other strands of DNA that we want so that once we get an entire working plasmid, we can put those into mouse embryos and grow mice with that specific gene.


Q: How did you hear about this internship?

A: My aunt works at the same building as all of them. There are a bunch of different labs in that building. I really wanted to get exposed to what research is like and what it’s like working in a lab. I’m planning on going into some medical field and possibly (getting) an M.D. or Ph.D. And that involves a lot of research.


Q: What was the application process?

A: (It) was kind of unconventional. I didn’t apply through a specific program. I met with one of the postdocs that introduced me to Krzysztof. We emailed a little bit, and I sent him my CV. And then when I was finally introduced to Krzysztof, he told me what he was doing and sent me a few papers to read. And then right before school ended, I went down to Stanford, and I met with him. He gave (me) a tour of the lab and showed me some more stuff on what they’re doing to see if I was interested and if I really wanted to do this for the whole summer.


Q: How many other people are helping with the research?

A: In the entire Weissman lab there are about a dozen postdocs. Under all of them there are a whole bunch of Stanford students and other people who came in from the outside just for the summer.


Q: Are you the youngest?

A: Yeah. There are a lot of college students, (but) I haven’t seen very many high-school students. There are a few in the building from what I’ve heard, but I haven’t met any of them.


Q: How does it feel being the youngest?

A: It’s definitely intimidating because all of these people have had so much more experience and a lot more knowledge. But I also think it’s a great environment because everyone is very nice and open to helping explain things. It’s nice being the youngest because I have an excuse for being the one always asking the questions. It’s also nice because one of the postdocs (Rahul) hosts a molecular biology class over the summer for all of his students, and he let me join the class.


(Photo used by permission of Zhang)
The bench where sophomore Allison Zhang does her work in the lab. Each researcher doing postdoctoral work has their own space in the lab, which contains about a dozen benches.

Q: What’s the class like?

A: It’s an informal class. We meet once a day when people aren’t too busy for an hour or two. He’ll talk about specific stuff that you’ll learn in a molecular biology class, but he ties it back to the lab and research that we’re doing.


Q: Do you get a lot of free time?

A: Definitely not. Like when you have to do PCR, which is amplifying a specific strand of DNA, once you prepare everything, you have to put it in a specific machine that will change the temperature and run it for you. And that takes maybe two hours. While you’re waiting, you start another thing.

It’s nice because the schedule itself isn’t set in stone. A lot of people get there when they can. I think all these researchers are night owls. They’ll get here at (9 or 10 a.m.), but then they’ll stay until really late at night. Sometimes, depending on what they’re doing, they’ll be here until 6 a.m. And then they go home and sleep for a few hours and come back.


Q: What time do you get there?
A: I usually get there at 9 a.m. and leave around 7 p.m. I definitely wasn’t expecting (this) schedule. But it’s not something I’m really against. If you have things to do one night, they’re totally okay with you just leaving early.


Q: Is there anything you dislike about the internship?

A: Honestly, not really. The first few weeks were definitely overwhelming where you’re learning all this new stuff and learning what research they’re doing and trying to understand it too. And everyone treats you as a colleague. They don’t treat you as a high-school student or undergrad or someone who’s below them. Everyone’s on a level playing field, which is nice because you get the experience and you get the knowledge.


Q: Are you staying in the dorms?

A: No. Most of the time I’m staying with my aunt, which is really nice because we can just drive there together. I come back to Sacramento on the weekends.


Q: Has the internship lived up to your expectations?

A: Yeah, for sure. I was afraid when I got there that everyone would be doing their own thing, and no one would include (me) because I’m only a high-school student. I didn’t want to be just a lab technician and do the same thing over and over again. But the people have really let me think and try to figure my own way. They’ve given me a lot of freedom, especially for how short of a time I’ve been here.


Q: Has anything surprised you?

A: Everyone goes by their first names. Everyone calls Irving Weissman, the super-famous researcher whose lab we’re in, Irv!


Q: Will you do the same internship next summer?

A: Hopefully, if they let me come back. I would love to continue with the research they’re working on.

By Annya Dahmani

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