When Natasha Powell emailed Tom Cech asking to work in his lab as an undergraduate research assistant, she had no idea that Cech just happens to be a Nobel laureate.
After Cech, a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry at CU-Boulder, offered her the position, a Google search revealed to Powell that her new boss was a world renowned researcher recognized for his discovery of the ribozyme.
Powell, now a junior, has worked in Cech’s lab since she was a freshman. She is triple majoring in neuroscience; molecular, cellular and developmental biology; and biochemistry. Powell is also minoring in French and dance with an emphasis on classical ballet.
"CU has a phenomenal undergraduate research reputation and that definitely drew me here," she said. "When I decided on CU, I started looking for professors who were doing interesting work. That's how I stumbled across Tom and his work in telomeres."
Powell emailed Cech about her interest in cancer research and her desire to work with him, although at the time she didn’t know he was a Nobel laureate.
"I'm so happy and lucky he responded," said Powell. "He's the most down-to-earth person you'll ever meet. I love working for him and the rest of his team."
To say that Powell is focused and driven is a bit of an understatement. She's been interested in science for as long as she can remember. While in high school in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota she wanted to pursue a career in pediatric neurosurgery. She attended a talk given by Dr. John Ohlfest, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, who was a pioneer in the treatment of glioblastomas—malignant brain tumors—using gene therapy and novel immunotherapies. Fascinated with his research, Powell approached him after the talk to ask about working in his lab despite being in high school.
During the time that Powell was working in his lab, Ohlfest was diagnosed with malignant melanoma that had metastasized to his lungs. He died a few months later. That experience for Powell became a turning point in her life.
"His death had a huge impact on me," said Powell. "I was mad at myself because I couldn't save him. I decided that I need to save people and that I needed to pursue this area. His death lit a fire under me. That’s how I got into cancer research."
Powell then worked for Dr. David Largaespada at the University of Minnesota, who was conducting similar cancer research as Ohlfest. By the time Powell graduated early from high school, she had more than a year of hands-on cancer research under her belt and was looking at universities where she could get into research as an undergraduate. That led her to CU-Boulder.
One of the projects Powell worked on with Cech’s team was examining mutations in the telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) gene promoter. They looked at 23 urothelial (bladder) cancers. Their data confirmed that a finding of high telomerase levels could predict whether a patient’s bladder cancer was fatal or survivable. Using their research could give medical diagnostic companies the knowledge to develop a test that could be used in a doctor’s office. The data from their latest research was published in February 2015 in Science, one of the top scientific journals in the world.
"Natasha and our other undergrad researchers bring a special energy, enthusiasm and talent to our lab," said Cech. "Seeing such students struggle, grow and triumph makes being a professor a very special career for me. Bringing undergrads like Natasha into our research group is the best education we provide at CU. It's open-ended and exploratory, the answers are unknown, and the process is at the cutting edge of biomedical science."
Powell's advice to students, regardless of major, is to take advantage of professors' office hours.
"That's where you get to know your professors," she said. "Even if you don't have a question or a problem, just go introduce yourself; let them know you're interested in their work. I promise it will help you. It's phenomenal the resources that are available to undergraduates that help prepare you for a career."
Powell's plans after graduating from CU in December 2016 are to get a doctorate and conduct immunotherapy-based cancer research focusing on glioblastomas and melanomas. It's no surprise that she's busy planning her next academic steps.
"For graduate school I'd like to go to The Rockefeller University in New York City," she said. "There's a professor there I want to work for. I've already scoped him out."
By Kenna Bruner