In the spring of her sophomore year, Chiemela and two Penn friends founded the WASH Program, which stands for water access, sanitation, and hygiene, to help fight infectious and water-borne diseases in West Africa. Chiemela, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Nigeria, has a strong personal connection to this work. The WASH Program is designed to teach optimal methods of handwashing, water sanitation, and good hygiene habits. Supported by Penn professor Stanley Laskowski, the co-founders worked hard to implement the program in a school in West Africa. After receiving a great deal of positive feedback and sources of funding, including from the Global Water Alliance, Chiemela and her peers had the opportunity to travel to Accra, Ghana this past July to implement the program.
The group ultimately shared the WASH program with students in an urban high school interested in environmental health and environmental issues. As a culminating project, these students presented their learning to younger peers in school. To extend the impact of this work, Chiemela is excited about the potential to bring the WASH program to students in rural communities.
Chiemela has always been drawn to biology and service. These elements fit perfectly into her future goal of becoming a physician-scientist. On her path towards this goal, the Penn community has been integral to pushing her to do big things and seeking out transformative opportunities. Two of Chiemela’s classes particularly stand out as definitive moments in her Penn career. Biology 102, which focuses on human physiology and ecology, helped Chiemela realize her affinity for research. She became fascinated by the idea of trophic levels, which explains how organisms in one ecosystem can affect each other’s relative abundances. While her professor, Dr. Paul Snegowski, related trophic levels to wildlife, Chiemela understood how it could be applied to the human microbiome. She explains that the balance of organisms in a microbiome, for example the gut, can play an important role in human health, which leads to better disease outcomes.
The other transformative class, Biochemistry, was a surprise favorite for Chiemela. Complementing her deep interest in biology, Chiemela was invigorated to learn about the chemical and physical components of living systems. She enjoyed uncovering the patterns in other systems beyond the biological structures she knows so well.
After reviewing various research opportunities through CURF, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, Chiemela connected with Dr. Paul Planet who leads a microbiology lab at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. Instead of working on an existing project in the lab, Chiemela pioneered her own project that she runs with the help of her colleagues. Chiemela’s project focuses on the use of plasmid curing methods to reduce antibiotic resistance. Most antibiotic-resistant genes are located on plasmids within bacteria so eliminating a plasmid also means losing the antibiotic-resistant mechanism utilized by the bacteria.
Chiemela’s ownership of this project has led to greater confidence in the lab. While this work is ongoing, the results so far has been rewarding. Chiemela’s work has reconceptualized the way she thinks about the dynamic nature of the microbiome. Moreover, the American Society of Microbiology awarded Chiemela with a fellowship to continue her research this past summer. Up next is the American Society of Microbiology Microbe Meeting in Spring 2019 in San Francisco where she will present her research to an audience of experts in the field.
During her freshman year, Chiemela developed a close bond with her GA, the graduate assistant on her College House floor. She remembers that her GA saw her potential and believed in her. Today, Chiemela continues that tradition by mentoring others as an RA, or residential advisor, in Fisher Hassenfeld College House. She understands that it is challenging for freshmen to navigate new spaces when they come to college and welcomes her daily interactions with her hall. Being a RA allows Chiemela to implement change by helping others, and it brings her closer to Penn’s student body as a whole. Consequently, this role has led to Chiemela’s growth as a mentor and leader.
Chiemela’s research experience extends to her work in Dr. Melanie Rutkowski’s lab at the University of Virginia. Eager to progress as a scientist, Chiemela applied and was accepted through Leadership Alliance, a program that connects undergraduates to research internship programs. Dr. Rutkowski’s lab investigates how the human microbiome affects tumor proliferation, specifically related to breast and ovarian cancer. Within this setting, Chiemela studied how tumors interact with immune cells called mucosal dendritic cells. It was hypothesized that tumor cells secrete an exosome that decreases the immune response and allows for proliferation. Chiemela’s work focused on the specific proteins that facilitate the immune cell’s response.
Chiemela appreciated the chance to research the microbiome from a disease application perspective. Not only did she get to work on the ideas she formulated in Biology 102, but she felt rewarded by the direct impact of her work on those with ovarian and breast cancers. Chiemela’s drive towards research is motivated by the positive impact her findings can have on others.