By Lucas Rucchin, ’24
While you were trimming away your July afternoons in leisure, Amirali was cutting open the organs of a deceased pig to locate its heart.
In the noon shade inside West Point Grey Academy’s second largest tent, I have with me Amirali Banani, Class of ‘24, whose extensive travels this summer ladled out all the academic rigour the United States of America has on boil. Focusing in specific on the health sciences, Amirali took camp for 28 days in whole at John Hopkins University, then Harvard University, charting the landmarks of the states and decorating the interwebs with photo albums of his experiences. He wrote another book, too.
Start us off at the very beginning, Amirali. How did you come into contact with these programs? Would you like to share anything about the application process?
Both of the programs I researched myself. John Hopkins and Harvard are two of my favourite universities, and I wanted to find out if they were offering any summer programs—in-person ones in particular. Both universities impressed me with their offered courses and activities, so I decided to apply.
Johns Hopkins required only a grades transcript and a letter of recommendation, while Harvard asked for both of these along with four paragraphs responding to different prompts. The prompts were broad, not necessarily about the course you were applying to—they were about academics in general. One of them, I remember, asked for my manner of maintaining integrity in individual academic work. Also interesting in Harvard’s application: you had to send all of your transcripts from your grade eight year to your most recent; that of John Hopkins only required one. So Harvard’s was definitely more tedious.
You arrived at John Hopkins first. There, you explored immersive simulations in a hospital environment. Tell us a little bit more about your experiences.
Half of the experience at Johns Hopkins was lectures, and the other half, which I really enjoyed, involved practical lessons in health science: dissections, lab work, blood typing. At John Hopkins hospital, we were given the opportunity to work in their medicine centre, where we performed IVs, recorded vitals from patients, listened to heartbeats, and identified different heart diseases. And yes: we got to dissect a pig, take out its organs—it was very similar to surgery. The technology around which these simulations were built was very well-developed.
Amiralus Bananus addresses his disciples in their midday reading session of Hebden: Chemistry 12: a Workbook for Students (circa 15th century)
Your second set of two-week programming took place at Harvard: a name that judders the souls of all students within a classroom-wide radius. We’d all like to know about it.
Harvard was hard. They expect you to know a lot, expect you to learn a lot.
There were solely lectures at Harvard, all of which were at a university level—they treated us just like college students. I believe our professor mentioned to us on the first day that we would be covering the material of a ten-week semester in only two weeks. In some cases, we had three-hour long lectures—three hours of constant teaching, of going through presentations with hundreds of slides. To keep up, I had to take notes all the time and engage in question periods.
In the first week, we learned different molecular mechanisms involving Epigenetics, which is a field that concerns the nurture aspect of evolutionary biology. While genetics focuses mainly on inherited genes, Epigenetics examines how your genes are affected by environmental stimuli and your personal experiences. It was a completely new subject for me.
Our encompassing project was a mock grant proposal in which we took what we learned in the first week and researched a topic about Epigenetics. My research project studied the role that hypomethylating agents play in curing clear cell and renal cell carcinomas, which is a type of kidney cancer. There’s this phenomenon called hypermethylation that occurs on the tumour suppressor genes in renal cells—kidney cells—which blocks the tumour suppressor genes, preventing their protein code from being transcribed. Of course, tumour suppressor genes prevent tumours from developing. In this way, hypermethylation makes someone more likely to get cancer. My research focused on hypomethylating agents, which remove the effects of hypermethylation from the tumour suppressor genes, allowing the gene to once again be transcribed into cancer-preventing proteins.
All of what I studied in my Epigenetics research was all new content to me. Really, I was learning about the subject matter and working on this project simultaneously.
We displayed our projects on the final day in a quick, five minute presentation in which we outlined the methods that we would (hypothetically) use to test the validity of our proposal. And though I still have a lot of gaps in my knowledge, there’s a sense of pride I receive in doing research on this level.
For many of these summer programs, the connections you make are just as beneficial as the learning. Is there anyone in particular, student or educator, who you felt was influential in your journeys this summer?
Absolutely. At both programs I met some really talented, forward-thinking individuals. It was very easy to bond with them. I was surrounded by people from all over the world; at Harvard, I met people from the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Japan. My roommate was from Norway, with whom I talked about our future career paths and university choices. Also, most of the students there weren’t even studying medicine—some were doing law, engineering, or physics, for instance. Despite having different passions, we shared a certain desire for knowledge. I’m still in contact with them to this day.
My teacher at Johns Hopkins works at the hospital, and he manages several labs there. I interviewed him one day, asking him about how he oversees his labs and the path he took to become a doctor. I had a similar experience at Harvard: my professor was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and I learned from her about her teaching experiences and her difficult pathway into her position.
Altogether, it was incredible to see the hardworking nature of both the professors and students exercised in a medical context.
Surely, your passions towards the health sciences have been propelled with these academic experiences. Do you have in mind any future plans in this area?
Yes. At Harvard, we were shown a list of additional programs we could take, both in the United States and abroad, focusing on how we could integrate our skills into a work position in a medical institution.
I was also made aware of opportunities to participate in scientific trials; that is, you can become like a subject in a research project, perhaps involving the testing of a new drug or treatment. My professor joked about her pastime of simply going to these trials and subjecting herself to new, experimental treatments.
Another option is providing assistance to a team of researchers in an authentic atmosphere. That’s what I’m looking into for next summer. Now that I’ve got a handle on the life of a university student and their academic level, I aspire to see what it’s like being a researcher in the field—how my abilities will be applied post-college.
Thank you for sharing. You can find Amirali’s work, including the Epigenetics mock grant proposal mentioned before, at linktr.ee/amirali_banani.