Student Research Training Program Launches Biomedical Science Interest

Darby Oleksak and Andreas Patsalos, Ph.D.

Darby Oleksak and Andreas Patsalos, Ph.D.

Published in Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital - Fall 2022

As Darby Oleksak approached college, she wasn’t sure what direction to pursue. She liked marine wildlife and architecture, but it was easier to eliminate most potential majors than to embrace one. 

In her first semester at USF St. Petersburg, her interests began to take shape. Her honors biology class took a field trip to visit Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital where they met Rui Zhou, Ph.D., a scientist in the Cancer & Blood Disorders Institute and an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Medicine Biological Chemistry and Oncology, and Tiffany Casey, an administrative program coordinator in the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Institute for Fundamental Biomedical Research

Zhou and Casey introduced Oleksak to the Student Research Training Program, Basic Research Pathway, which is designed to mentor students 16 and older who have an interest in basic science research. 

“I was immediately interested because I had never been in a lab before, and I figured that interning in a lab at Johns Hopkins would be an interesting and fulfilling experience regardless of whether or not I chose scientific research as a career,” Oleksak says. 

Oleksak started working with the lab of Laszlo Nagy, Ph.D., M.D., in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the world. Initially, she was limited to virtual meetings, journal clubs and other activities, but she made a mark. 

“Darby was a very curious, dedicated, hard-working and careful intern,” Nagy says. “She showed great interest in the work and projects we were doing and in spite of the fact that she is a very quiet, soft-spoken individual, always had the right answer when we asked her a question.” 

Andreas Patsalos, a post-doctoral research fellow in the Nagy lab, asked Oleksak to write an essay about macrophages, which are a type of white blood cell that plays a key role in the immune system and is a research focus in the Nagy lab. Patsalos was impressed enough that they hired Oleksak as a lab employee in March 2021. 

“She is very driven and performs at the level of a senior graduate student,” Nagy says. “She learns fast, does flawless experimental work, very dependable and diligent and able to carry out very complex experiments.” 

Oleksak recently traveled to Johns Hopkins’ Baltimore campus to present an academic poster at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Medicine and Whiting School of Engineering Research Retreat 2022 Poster Session, getting strong reviews. 

Zhou and Nagy point to Oleksak as an example of the success of the Student Research Training Program. The program currently has eight interns working in various labs. Interested students can apply at any time and are matched with principle investigators based on mutual areas of interest. 

“The training program is an absolutely essential element of our academic life at Johns Hopkins All Children’s as Darby’s example illustrates,” Nagy says. “This is an excellent way to provide non-classroom-based training for aspiring scientists and future medical doctors from USF and Eckerd.”

Oleksak is grateful for the opportunity. She graduated summa cum laude from USF in three years with a degree in biology. She now has a clear career focus in mind: becoming a medical doctor. 

“It is difficult to describe how greatly this program has impacted my life,” she says. “I’m not sure where I would be without it. I sincerely recommend the experience to anyone interested in biomedical research. The program has obviously prepared me for work in a research lab, but I think I will carry all that I’ve learned through medical school and well into life.” 

Students who are interested in the Student Research Training Program should contact program coordinator Tiffany Casey at [email protected] or 727-767-4384