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Leslie Koyama

Student researcher repairs blueprints for life

Leslie Koyama

Leslie Koyama, a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, isolates colonies of E. coli in preparation for large scale protein purification.

For Leslie Koyama, the possibility of repairing damaged blueprints is at the center of her research. In this case, however, her blueprints do not give the directions to build a new factory; hers provide the instructions for life.

As a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security HS-STEM Internship Program, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, which is managed by ORAU, Koyama is spending her summer working with biochemists at the Sandia National Laboratory in Livermore, California, researching the mechanisms of DNA repair.

With a passion for science that began in high school and has continued as a college student through her work with students in middle school science camps where she taught “Kitchen Chemistry” and “Junior M.D.,” the summer internship program presented Koyama with an opportunity to further explore her interest in science.

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program provides a 10-week summer research experience for undergraduate students majoring in homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines. The goal of this program is to prepare a diverse, highly talented, educated, and skilled pool of scientists and engineers to address HS-STEM issues.

Koyama, an undergraduate majoring in biology at Barnard College is spending her summer working specifically with the apurinic/apyrimidinic endonuclease enzyme, also referred to as APE1, which facilitates DNA repair. Eventually she hopes to learn how the APE1 enzyme is able to specifically interact with other repair enzymes to fix DNA lesions that result from radiation exposure and other environmental agents.

“By studying the interactions between the repair enzymes and DNA substrates, we can better understand the progression of various DNA repair pathways,” explained Koyama. “With this research, scientists could potentially develop diagnostic as well as preventative measures against diseases caused by environmental agent exposure.”

But her research is not the only learning experience to which Koyama is being exposed this summer. Through the internship program she is also part of a supportive scientific environment and involved in method development situations which force her to think outside the box.

“At school we usually work under the premise that you have one set of directions in front of you and that is the only way to run your experiment,” Koyama explained. “But coming here to an actual research lab has shown me that people perform experiments in many different ways, and they often share ideas to try and help each other. That kind of collaborative environment is really inspiring.”

Through her research, Koyama has also learned experiments often do not yield the results a researcher expects. “At school your experiments and protocols are designed to work, and I’ve learned that part of the fun is troubleshooting what went wrong in order to optimize your results.”

At the conclusion of her internship, Koyama intends to return to university life with many lessons learned valuable to both life and the lab bench.

“I have learned to take disappointments in stride, hop back up and try it again. It has always been difficult for me to deal with criticism and disappointment, and after this internship I feel like I understand that you can’t take it personally. All it means is that you need to try something different.”