Armenise-Harvard Foundation Summer Fellows Conclude an Enriching Summer

For the fourth year, laboratories at Harvard and its affiliates were augmented this summer by a group of nine talented, enthusiastic university and medical students from Italy.   Their work culminated in the Summer Fellows Research Day at the end of August, when each student presented her work to the class, as well as representatives from labs and the Giovanni Armenise-Harvard Foundation.  In addition, we were honored to have Ms. Cinzia del Zoppo, the Science and Technology Attaché from the Italian Consul General’s office in Boston, join us for the afternoon.  At the close of the student presentations, Ms. Del Zoppo gave concluding remarks, lauding the Armenise-Harvard Foundation for having offered this valuable opportunity to a future generation of Italian scientists.

This year’s class comprised nine women, led by the program director, Dr. Annarita Patrizi, a research fellow in neurology from Boston’s Children’s Hospital.   They were a diverse group geographically, representing regions throughout Italy, which is a testament to the spreading word about the desirability of this training.  Many thanks go to Dr. Patrizi, for her hard work and dedication to the program, as well as to all the laboratories that hosted our 2013 Summer Fellows.

Francesca Briganti, addressed the group on “Screening of compounds that restore let-7 expression in cancer”.  The malfunction of let-7, a specialized RNA, is found in fifteen percent of all human cancer samples; as a result, this research offers a promising target for cancer drugs.  A first-year graduate student in Genetics and Molecular Biology from the University of Rome, La Sapienza, Francesca was very pleased to work in Dr. Richard Gregory’s lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Irene Faravelli, a sixth-year medical student from the University of Milan, worked in the lab of Dr. Paola Arlotta at the Harvard University Stem Cell Institute. Her talk, “Direct differentiation of human stem cells in corticospinal motor neurons”, focused on the development of an innovative protocol to derive and transplant stem cell corticospinal motor neurons. This work holds the potential for use in drug screening, disease modeling, and cell therapy.  Irene plans to become a clinician/scientist and she was thrilled to have had the opportunity to live abroad, work and learn in a leading laboratory.

Sara Solveig Fois, a sixth-year medical student at the University of Sassari (Sardinia), spoke on “A genome-wide linkage analysis in a family with a novel growth syndrome”.  This project allowed her to gain experience in the genetic analysis of polygenic and monogenic traits, using genetic software.  Sara’s research interest is in population genetics as it relates to pediatric patients, and she was delighted to work in Dr. Joel Hirschhorn’s lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Nadia Giordano’s talk, ”The role of amygdalo-striatal neurons in an innate, olfactory-driven avoidance behavior”, described the hypothesis that a selective circuit is involved in the control of avoidance behavior, in this case when a mouse encounters a predator.  To test this, she used a pharmacogenetic approach, measuring avoidance behavior when the mouse is exposed to a predator odor (fox).  Nadia is a second year graduate student in Biological Sciences at the University of Naples, Federico II, whose interests lie in the area of cognitive function, specifically learning and memory.  She felt very fortunate to be working in Dr. Sandeep Robert Datta’s lab at Harvard Medical School.

Sara Mancinelli is a second-year graduate student in Biological Sciences at the University of Naples, Federico II, interested the area of stem cell medicine and regenerative research.  The topic of Sara’s talk was, “Modeling Parkinson’s disease utilizing gene targeted human pluripotent stem cells”, and her project aimed at developing a method for producing large-scale mature dopaminergic neurons with distinct depot-specific identity, from human pluripotent stem cells.  Given Sara’s interest in this field of research, she was extremely gratified to have been able to spend the summer in Dr. Lee Rubin’s lab in Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology.

Alessandra Merlini is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Pavia, although she is very interested in basic science research, both in immunology and general pathology.  Alessandra’s presentation, “Cell type and developmental stage-specific epigenetic patterns in the mouse mammary epithelium”, described her study of the expression patterns of key regulators of cell proliferation and differentiation, using mouse mammary epithelium. This was done using immunofluorescence techniques, and she was happy with the results, which confirmed the mammary gland as a useful model for future studies on breast cancer risk.  Her work was done in Dr. Kornelia Polyak’s lab, at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

Ilaria My is a fifth-year medical student from the University Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Milan, who believes it is very important for clinicians to understand the molecular underpinnings of patients’ disease.   Her presentation, “Cardiac stem cells and telomere dysfunction”, described the study of the role of telomere dysfunction in heart failure; specifically she was involved in the molecular characterization of a subset of cardiac stem cells.  Ilaria did this work in the lab of Dr. Piero Anversa, at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Viviana Neviani, a first-year student in Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Pavia, presented “Chromatin remodeling complex SWR1: locating the Swc2 subunit”.  Viviana worked with Dr. Andres Leschziner’s lab, in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard, and her aim for the summer was to label the Swc2 subunit with an antibody and locate it within the complex, using electron microscopy.  She describes this work as giving her the first opportunity to pursue her own goals and helping to crystalize her longer-term plans, which include applying for a Ph.D.

Cristiana Vagnoni, a first-year graduate student in Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Turin, was placed in the lab of Dr. Christopher A. Walsh.  Having always been interested in neurobiology, she was thrilled to be able to work in Dr. Walsh’s lab.  Her talk, titled “Brain, Development and Evolution: the mechanisms that make us human”, described the development of the tridimensional computerized analysis of mitotic spindle orientation of radial glial cells in mouse embryos.  She attests that this summer experience has fueled even further her desire to become a neuroscientist.

The Armenise-Harvard Summer Fellows Program was founded by an inspiring former HMS post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Chiara Manzini, who has recently taken a position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology at the George Washington University.  The fellowship comes with a grant of €2,700, which helps defray some of the travel and living costs associated with the program.  This year, four of the nine students were sponsored by the Armenise-Harvard Foundation, three by the Italian National Research Council (CNR) and two by the Ghislieri College in Pavia.

In addition to their lab work, Summer Fellows attended weekly seminars featuring Italian scientists and physicians who have gone abroad to study or work for part of their career.  The application deadline is in December, and interested students are encouraged to read more about the program on the grants section of the Armenise-Harvard Foundation’s website:

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