Spring 2015

A Year at the NIH

Jennie Leikin, D16, is conducting research on lung cancer and a rare neurological disorder

300W_Jennie Leikin_NIHSince the day she extracted her younger sister’s baby tooth, Jennie Leikin, D16, knew she wanted a career in dentistry.

Her curiosity about the cause of the diseases and conditions she might treat someday, combined with an aptitude for mathematics (her undergraduate major), led her to the laboratory.

“Students in the health professional field often get information and take it at face value. I want to take a closer look and understand why things are the way they are and pursue deeper questions about how they occur,” Leikin says.

She is pursuing the answers to some of those questions at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, this year as a Medical Research Scholar. She is one of 10 Tufts dental students selected to participate in NIH research programs over the past 15 years.

The research scholars are matched with a mentor and a project that aligns with their interests and career goals. Leikin’s broad interests and talents meant two labs were better than one.

Her first lab is in the Laboratory of Human Carcinogenesis in the National Cancer Institute, where she is contributing to Bríd Ryan’s research by examining the role of genetics in lung cancer. Specifically, Leikin is using her knowledge in computational biology to investigate the role of microRNA—a recently discovered class of RNA that regulates gene expression—in lung tumor cells.

Leikin’s second assignment is with Janice Lee at the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research, in collaboration with the National Human Genome Research Institute. She is contributing to our understanding of the extremely rare neurological condition known as Moebius syndrome, which affects the sixth and seventh cranial nerves. Patients with the condition experience weakness or paralysis of their facial muscles and are unable to make certain eye movements. They can’t smile, frown, suck, grimace or blink their eyes.

“We are trying to classify those that have true Moebius syndrome, because many patients are born with other anomalies and systemic conditions, including facial asymmetries or missing and misaligned teeth,” Leikin says. “We use a comprehensive craniofacial and oral exam, as well as imaging to characterize this condition further.”

Taking a year off from dental school was a hard decision, she says, but the chance to spend it at one of the world’s foremost research institutions was a can’t-miss opportunity. “NIH is a very supportive learning environment,” Leikin says. “There are daily lectures and so many learning possibilities. Everyone is eager to have you make the most of your experience.” —Gail Bambrick

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