From Miami to Chapel Hill – One SMART-T Alumna’s journey

-written by Virginia Perello B.A. Chemistry 2014

-edited by Daijha J. Copeland

Virginia Perello during her SMART-T poster session

Virginia Perello during her SMART-T poster session

I am a Latina and a Cuban immigrant, raised in Chile. I moved to the United States in 2006 with my family and the dream of being the first woman in my family to become a doctor. After graduating from the two-year Honors College at Miami Dade College, I decided to continue my education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for all of the incredible research opportunities it has to offer. This decision forced me to look beyond what had become familiar, my home state of Florida, and move to North Carolina. At UNC, I grew not only academically, but also on a personal level. I found the classes to be much more challenging and demanding than in my prior school, but I believe that the experience made me a better student. Along with adjusting to UNC’s demanding atmosphere, I gained a greater sense of inquiry and desire to do more outside of the classroom.

After searching for research opportunities both online and through conversations with professors, and getting nowhere, I received an unexpected email stating I had been recommended to participate in the Science and Math Achievement Resourcefulness Track for Transfer students (SMART-T) program. I was immediately drawn to investigate what the program was about, as I had never heard of it before. The more I read about it, the more eager I was to apply. I submitted my application to Dr. Gidi Shemer, SMART Program Director, who paired me with Dr. Mike Kulis. Dr. Kulis is a Research Assistant Professor in the department of Pediatrics. This was a good match for me, because my ultimate goal was to become a pediatrician and work with Doctors Without Borders.

Peanut products cause the most common food allergy causing skin-based, stomach, respiratory symptoms, and even life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Peanut products cause the most common food allergy causing skin-based, stomach, respiratory symptoms, and even life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Dr. Kulis worked in the Food Allergy Lab, which gave me the opportunity to contribute to the research on immunotherapy for food allergies. This research assesses whether or not the antibody isotype, IgG, can be a factor of decreasing allergic reaction and prevention of anaphylactic shock. The significance of this project is that it will provide a better understanding of the role of IgG in immunotherapy for allergic subjects. Thus, it will contribute to the diagnosis and therapy for peanut allergies. The ultimate goal of this project is to assess whether or not histamine release from the basophil is inhibited as a result of IgG, which is directly proportional to peanut allergen exposure over time as a result of immunotherapy. Peanut allergy accounts for the vast majority of life threatening and fatal allergic reactions to foods and affects approximately 3 million Americans and 3.9% of the pediatric population.

Under Dr. Kulis’ mentorship, my SMART-T experience has helped me view the clinical side of medicine from a completely new perspective. Dr. Kulis taught me about important laboratory techniques such as the Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) method and provided me with the tools to become a better researcher and future doctor. I was able to see the interconnection between scientific research and individual wellbeing in a healthcare based laboratory, since allergies affect a person’s physical and social welfare. I used to think researchers only worked in a lab and did not have much patient exposure, but I have learned that it is possible to work in a lab setting and still have the essential patient interaction. My summer in the SMART-T program solidified my decision to become a pediatric physician, who is involved in clinical research.

My SMART-T experience has taught me that for anyone thinking that it is too late to get involved in research or think there isn’t enough time, trust me there is a research opportunity out there for you! Summer research fellowships are the perfect programs as they do not get in the way of courses during the regular fall and spring terms and you can apply during any point of your undergraduate career. I highly recommend just taking the time to apply once you find an opportunity that suits you, as I did, because who knows how these opportunities may shape your career goals.divider