PREP@Iowa – Q&A with Helena Kenny and Taha Gesalla

Helena Kenny, PhD, is a postdoctoral research scholar in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism and a member of the Abel Lab. In a pairing similar to the mentor/trainee pairing of Renata Pereira Alambert, PhD, and Luis Miguel Garcia Pena, Kenny has been working closely with another member of the PREP@Iowa program, Taha Gesalla. Each of them responded by email to some questions about their experience.

Helena Kenny
It was clear from Taha’s very impressive resume that he was enthusiastic and driven. His resume highlighted his significant achievements since he came to the University of Iowa. 

Initially, Taha underwent a training period in the lab where he learned some basic bench assays like polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and protein assays. Once proficient in these, he would learn more complex experimental procedures like RNA isolation and cardiomyocyte isolation. With practice, Taha became proficient at lab work and I was happy for him to independently complete experiments. He has contributed considerably to a manuscript that is currently in review. 

Taha and I work side by side at the bench. We meet informally on a daily basis and then formally, once a week to discuss project results and plan work for the following week.

I think this is a great program that benefits the student and the mentors. The PREP program allows students to become immersed in a project and contribute in a meaningful way.  Based on my very positive experience working with Taha, I would always welcome students from the PREP program to our lab. We benefit as much as the students. Taha was focused and hardworking and it was a real pleasure to mentor him for the last year. 

Taha Gesalla
Participating in the Summer Health Professional Educational Program (SHPEP), Summer Undergraduates Research (SUM) MSTP program, Iowa Center of Research for Undergraduates (ICRU), and being part of the scientific community in Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa have given me the opportunity to be introduced to programs that are current on our campus. I was introduced to the PREP program through the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Carver College of Medicine, which is a place I always find support no matter what. The PREP program has given me the courage to start the process of applying for MSTP programs. I am happy enough to say that I did apply in May of 2021 and hoping that I will end up going to Iowa to contribute to the bigger picture as a physician scientist. 

Working with Dr. Kenny was definitely a great match. She pushed me constantly to the next level and encouraged me to think like a scientist. I enjoyed every moment working with her and, more important, learning the process of science, skills that will carry with me along the way of becoming a physician scientist. And from here I will say truly is has been an honor working and learning from her: “THANK YOU”

During the PREP program, I have grown personally, professionally, and scientifically. I developed my own models, learned many scientific bench skills such as perfecting my pipetting skills, running my own PCR, making my own samples, running Western Blots (WB), developing my own qPCR, performing RNA seq data to identify the genes that are responsible to either up-regulate or down-regulate my gene of interest, and performing Oroboros O2k experiment, where I measured the oxygen concentration within mitochondria. 

I performed EKG monitoring over eleven weeks, which showed early evidence of arrhythmias that progressively get worse with time. From the experiments that I performed from WB and RNA seq, I concluded that TFEB overexpression resulted in cardiac dysfunction, cardiac hypertrophy, and premature death. TFEB overexpression leads to lethal cardiac arrhythmia. This may be mediated by the effect of TFEB on cardiac ion channels and calcium regulation. 

I wrapped up my PREP experience by presenting my own results and getting published.      

What lessons have you learned from this experience and how has it shaped your long-term career goals?
Scientists are human and they have a life outside labs, papers, and grants. I had the opportunity to witness that part closely in Dr. Kenny’s life as she balances her career and family responsibilities.

I am most interested in becoming a physician-scientist and joining an MD/Ph.D. program that will help me reach my life goal. In particular, I plan to fill the gap of health disparities and ensure everyone’s right to seek healthcare is fulfilled.

What was your relationship like with Ayotunde Dokun, MD, PhD, FACE, the PI for the PREP@Iowa program?
Dr. Dokun is one of the greatest mentors out there. I am lucky enough to have had the opportunity to meet him and to be his mentee as he not just pushed me to the next level, rather to always make sure I am hitting all the points and to be the strongest candidate possible out there. He has been a great source of support and encouragement. I meet with Dr. Dokun monthly to talk about progresses in the lab, application processes, studying when I needed, and my aspiration of the MD/PhD program.  

In conclusion, I would like to give my biggest thanks and appreciation to Dr. Dale Abel. He opened his arms for me since 2017, when I emailed him requesting to meet with him to tell him about my passion for medicine and how I want to be a physician scientist. I told him that he is one of these individuals I always look up to. He humbly replied saying that you can do whatever you set your mind to, and nothing will stop you from achieving that if you have the passion and determination do it, just put your mind into it. And I promise you, Dr. Abel, I am still carrying these words with me, and I will be the best physician scientist I can be out there to contribute to our bigger communities. 

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