Finding Myself in the Midst of Uncertainty

SRA Blog Post By SRA Scholar Ishika Prashar

The summer after I graduated high school, a year before the pandemic hit, thanks to Students Rising Above and my advisor Tanya, I was encouraged to apply to the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute Summer Student Research Program (CHORI SSRP). The internship gave me a purpose and turned my confusion over a future career into a very simple goal, to always help others. 

I worked with my mentor, Dr. Ward Hagar, in the hematology/oncology department at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. My days at the internship would start with meetings and a warm hot chocolate, courtesy of Dr. Hagar. I was taken aback by his kindness and the fact that he took the time to meet with me every single day, no matter how busy he might be. I learned so much from Dr. Hagar, and can never thank him enough for the confidence he instilled in me to always ask questions. 

I got to learn about and research biostatistics, coding in R, big data, and machine learning. My project focused on researching whether big data analyses could provide improved results compared to frequentist statistics for large patient datasets. Through the experience, I found my place in tech and medicine and learned how I can make a positive impact in the lives of others through this field. 

The experience was so impactful that I decided to apply again for the program this year. I was eager to gain new experiences in a different aspect of medicine and possibly even work in a lab. 

Circumstances however were not as I expected when the entire program was transitioned to be remote. I doubted the efficacy of the internship and couldn’t imagine how a research based program with a focus on networking and creating connections could be done completely online. 

Surprisingly, I am having just as meaningful of an experience this year compared to the last. Dr. Ellen Fung, Dr. David Kilillea and all the people involved with CHORI SSRP have truly committed themselves and their time to make the virtual experience engaging. 

My mentor, Dr. Steve Mack holds conversations with me daily through Slack and Zoom meetings, and I even have the opportunity to attend his virtual lab meetings and converse with other researchers. Through Dr. Mack, I have learned about the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA), and how important these genes are for the immune system. 

My project this summer is focused on writing a proposal to study the associations of HLA genes on Type-1-Diabetes for non-European populations. On top of this, I am also working on creating an R package titled “HLA Tools” which will contain some functions Dr. Mack’s team has written to analyze the HLA genes. 

Aside from my project, I get to conduct virtual labs, and CHORI SSRP holds Zoom meetings twice a week with all the participants where we hear lectures on a variety of topics, give flash talks, and get a chance to interact with each other. As a returning student to the program, I have been given additional responsibilities like leading discussions with a small group of new students, and conducting an hour long research paper presentation. I’ve enjoyed this new role because it has allowed me to step further out of my comfort zone and feel more confident with virtual public speaking and sharing my opinions. I’ve even gotten to talk to some of the other mentors one on one through Zoom and email which is not something I had a chance to do last summer.  

Although I didn’t get to be in a lab setting this summer, I don’t feel as though I have missed out on anything. I feel so immersed and passionate about everything I’m learning and the whole experience has further reinstated my goals to be a part of a community and work that focuses on bettering the lives of others. My only complaint with the program is how fast the weeks seem to be flying by, and how close I am to the end of another great summer with CHORI SSRP.