Every year, Penn produces a large volume of new research, but it also produces a high number of researchers. The process of becoming a scientist is more than just learning formulas and memorizing equations; it involves experiencing life in the lab and the drive for new knowledge.
For juniors Samuel Allon and Iulia Tapescu, that process started long before they first stepped foot on campus, and it is already paying dividends.
Despite being undergraduates in the College, Allon and Tapescu are co-authors on new study led by Penn Medicine’s Kristen Lynch, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics. Their paper helps explain how some of the cells in the human immune system develop by looking at messenger RNA, which carries information from DNA to the protein-producing ribosomes.
Allon is a member of the Roy and Diana Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences, which trains undergraduates in interdisciplinary research revolving around the chemical machinery of the cell. The program sends invitations to admitted students who have stated an interest in molecular life sciences in their applications.
Drawing on a middle-school science project on the genetics of fruit flies, Allon sought out research internships in high school, and for opportunities for more serious lab work as soon as he was accepted to Penn. He reached out to Lynch, and she hired him the summer before he came to campus. Once there, he saw what made it such a welcoming place for undergraduate research.
“Penn is unique in that the medical school is right next to where the undergrads live,” Allon says. “That opens up hundreds of labs that you can walk to right after class. I lived in the Quad freshman year and used to joke that my commute was half-horizontal and half vertical.”
Tapescu was also inclined toward science at an early age, entering mathematics competitions in her native Romania from the fourth grade onward. But because she transferred to Penn after her freshman year, she wasn’t eligible to join the Vagelos Program. Instead, Program Director Ponzy Lu—who is also the chair of the College Biochemistry Program and her adviser—recommended Tapescu apply for the University Scholars program.
The UScholars program brings research-minded undergrads together for weekly lunches to discuss their projects, and also helps defray the related costs, such as traveling to do international research, or staying on campus over the summer to continue running experiments in their labs.
With research playing such a large role in their motivations and goals, the cohort of students in the Vagelos and UScholars programs often end up working all over campus.
“One of the nice things about Penn is that you can work with people in so many other departments and schools,” Tapescu says. “I don’t think you have that anywhere else. Everything is so close together, but more than that, there’s an overall attitude that facilitates these productive collaborations. “
The atmosphere that leads to these collaborations is not lost on faculty members like Lynch.
“That these students are so motivated in their research speaks highly of the programs,” Lynch says. “We know they select well, so my fellow faculty are competing for them.”