Biochemistry senior Alejandra Lopez- Diaz hasn’t wasted much time during her past three years at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Outside of class, she’s spent most of her free hours inside the university’s labs researching an aspect of time itself—our circadian clock, or the internal biological clock that helps take us through various phases of the day from morning to night.
Her work has been helping the lab of her mentor, NJIT biochemistry professor Yong- Ick Kim, better understand the molecular mechanisms behind why we might experience jet lag when we fly to another time zone, and explore ways to treat such asynchrony between our body clock and the day/night cycle. But now, all the extra time she’s spent sharpening her lab skills and gaining research experience seem to be paying off in another way. This month, she’s set to intern with Merck, where she’ll be aiding in vaccine research for the pharmaceutical giant’s Analytical Research and Development Department.
“I’ve been in school so long, so now it will be great to have the chance to evolve in a professional environment with Merck,” said Diaz. “Merck is allowing me to intern virtually to start, and I don’t know exactly what to expect yet, but I’m really excited to begin learning from their experts and become a specialist in some of the advanced techniques and equipment they are applying for vaccine research.” While Diaz will begin assisting Merck’s R&D efforts from the convenience of her home in Phillipsburg, N.J., the opportunity to do so arose from a career-changing event for her that took place out of state last year. Diaz identifies with having major depressive disorder, attention deficit disorder and dyscalculia.
She flew out to Chicago last year for one of the world’s largest annual disability inclusion events, the 2019 Disability:IN Annual Conference & Expo. The event attracts thousands of young professionals, corporate leaders and disability experts interested in learning about the latest in accessible tech and workplace trends, as well as recruitment and career opportunities. There, she got the chance to make an impression with some of the country’s top employers looking for young talent with experience in biochemical research—employers like Merck.
NJIT Senior Alejandra Lopez-Diaz Lands Merck R&D Internship to Work on Vaccines “Disability-inclusive companies, like Merck, take the opportunity at the conference to interview aspiring professionals to see if we may be a fit for their companies,” said Diaz. “I interviewed with them, and two days later they called me and asked me to join their internship program.” Finding a Research Rhythm at NJIT Diaz credits the recent success in good part to her training in Kim’s lab, exploring the circadian clock of a simple organism, cyanobacteria— commonly recognized as blue-green algae—to better understand how the circadian rhythm of an organism’s function is affected by changing environmental conditions. She’s been experimenting with a specific protein, KaiC, which along with two other proteins, KaiA and KaiB, act as the cyanobacteria’s internal clock. KaiC resonates a signal, or oscillation, every 12 hours—forming the circadian rhythm of the cyanobacteria through interactions with KaiA and KaiB. “My project was to express a mutant KaiC gene from a strain of cyanobacteria called S. elongatus.
I’m studying how a change in an amino acid in a domain of KaiC that acts like an on-off switch for the internal clock, called the A-loop, might change functionality and the oscillation signal,” said Diaz. “If we can understand how this process works in simple organisms or how it can be manipulated, we might be able to understand how more complex clocks work, like our own.” While she’s learned a lot in the lab as a student, she’s also learned nearly as much as a teacher herself this semester. Through a pilot program at NJIT, Students 2 Science (S2S), Diaz has joined other college-level researchers and professional scientists giving advanced, handson instruction to Newark Public School students in a commercial lab environment in downtown Newark. The program opened the doors to its Newark S2S Technology Center in 2018, and since then companies, such as ThermoFisher Scientific, Bayer and Merck, have helped support the organization by donating cuttingedge research equipment, corporate volunteers and mentors, allowing Diaz and others to educate students in everything from botany and biotechnology, to the latest in chromatography and spectroscopy.
“This is a great program that trains NJIT students as teachers and has improved my soft skills a lot, but it also let me get give back to the community just a couple blocks from the university,” said Diaz. “It’s amazing—some of the instruments and equipment the kids are learning with are as sophisticated as anything you’d find at NJIT.” Every Monday this semester, Diaz had met up to instruct Newark’s young students. Despite the recent school closures, she’s found a way to keep volunteering.
“Now, myself and two other NJIT studentvolunteers are creating virtual lectures with experiments that the kids can do at home,” said Diaz. “The next one we’re hoping to do is a lecture series teaching them the science of sound. I’m still trying to connect with this program and get kids excited about science.” Though her NJIT research may be temporarily put on hold due to the COVID-19 protocols, Diaz says she’s ready to use the impressive skillset she’s already honed under Kim’s mentorship specifically as her platform to grow and succeed with Merck this summer. “I’ve learned how to modify PCR protocols, perform DNA transformations, find and use restriction enzymes and learn how to read bands on electrophoresis gels, and practice safe and proper usage of instruments,” said Diaz. “These skill sets add up … I can’t thank Dr. Yong-Ick Kim enough for teaching me how to do these things and giving me enough independence and room for creativity to grow as a scientist.” research.njit.edu