BBI interns (left to right): Ada Okereke (Fred Hutch), Asa Laskie (UW Medicine), and Danielle Ansong (Seattle Children’s). 'Committed to using science to improving people’s lives.’
One was the valedictorian of her high school class, in a Los Angeles County public school that did not have a college counselor. Another is a member of the Chickasaw Nation. And the third is fluent in Akan, the most widely spoken indigenous language in Ghana, West Africa.
So, what do these three young adults have in common? They are summer interns sponsored by BBI at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, UW Medicine, and Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Moreover, they all are committed to using science to improving people’s lives.
Ada Okereke, the 2019 valedictorian of Inglewood High School, is working in the lab of BBI’s Dr. Andrew Hsieh, a molecular and cell biologist and oncologist at Fred Hutch. She is studying how changes in one’s skin epidermis affect RNA binding proteins and, in turn, gene expression. In addition, Okereke, a first-generation college student, is examining prostate cancer organoids to explore how the cancer might initiate and how it progresses.
The serene setting of the Hutch’s main campus overlooking Seattle’s Lake Union is a far cry from the chaos of the emergency room of the Los Angeles County Hospital, where Okereke volunteers. It’s likely the people she encounters in one 12-hour shift caring for victims of gunfire, car accidents, and drug overdoses far outnumbers the residents and post-docs she consults with in the lab.
“There is so much happening all at once, in the ER,” Okereke said. “The emergency doctors work collaboratively and quickly. It’s incredible to shadow doctors working under that extraordinary pressure.”
Observing such “extraordinary pressure,” clearly motivates Okereke. After graduating next year from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in molecular, cell, and developmental biology, she intends to take a “gap year” before exploring either graduate school or medical school – or both.
Her internship at the Hutch has underscored her interest in research. It also has brought out a new willingness to “put myself out there.”
“I’m more extroverted here,” she said. “I’ve grown a lot in the short time I have been here. I’m asking a lot more questions when I don’t fully understand something. I’m advocating for myself more. I’ve gained a higher level of confidence and will take this back to my lab at UCLA.”
Asa Laskie, the Chickasaw tribal member, is fascinated by genetics and proteomics, the large-scale analysis of proteins. He is spending the summer exploring this fascination in the lab of Dr. Christine Queitsch, a professor of Genome Sciences at UW Medicine.
Queitsch and colleagues explore the genetic architecture of complex traits and the role of gene regulation and protein folding in generating phenotypic variation. Those areas of genome science are clearly in sync with Laskie’s career plans. His resume indicates a desire “to utilize understanding of biological and biochemical theory and technology to promote the greater good and health of the public.”
That desire dates back to his junior year of high school in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
“I took several biology courses in high school that showed me how genetics shapes our world,” he said.
Laskie is expected to graduate next year from Fort Lewis College, a public school in Durango, Colorado, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science and a concentration in cellular and molecular biology. His career plans are focused on pursuing a Ph.D., possibly at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and subsequently exploring research opportunities in the corporate sector.
At this point, Laskie has no interest in academia.
“From my experience observing the life in academia, I see a lot of urgency to publish and to always be applying for grants, as well as grading papers and working in labs on weekends,” he said. “I absolutely love science, but I also want to ensure I have a strong work-life balance.”
Danielle Ansong’s fluency in a Ghanaian language will likely serve her well as a future researcher or physician in the United States or Ghana – or both. She learned it first hand during numerous visits to her parents’ homeland. Those visits have instilled in her a determination to help address inequities in health systems in Ghana as well as the United States.
Ansong is especially interested in malaria, which is her current focus at Seattle Children’s. In the lab of BBI’s Dr. Alexis Kaushansky, an associate professor at Seattle Children’s Center for Global Infectious Disease Research, she is studying treatments for malaria, and specifically, how proteins regulate viral infections and inflammation in mice.
“This work has made me intrigued with DNA and molecular processes,” Ansong said. “Every step is important. The need to be precise in these processes is essential.”
She is “trying to be excellent in everything I do – maintaining a lab notebook and connecting with other lab members, and building relationships with them. I feel like I’m an asset to this team in the Kaushansky Lab.”
Ansong is also an asset to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), from which she is expecting to graduate in May of 2024 with degree in Biochemistry.
She is president of the African Student Union at VCU, as well as a former member of VCU Emerging Leaders Program, where she analyzed data on hygiene and sexual safety among students and people in the community. That effort led to her providing hygiene products to those in need in the Richmond, Virginia community.
After completing her undergraduate work, Ansong is considering taking a gap year to further her research, then begin applying to medical schools.
“There are lots of avenues to explore.,” she said.