For most people, broccoli is a healthy green vegetable that some like more than others. For Teresa Lesch, however, it is most importantly a carrier of a compound known as sulforaphane. This isothiocyanate and antioxidant is proven to support cancer therapy, and was the focus of a seminar paper written by the 16-year-old student for her high school class in Güntersleben, Bavaria. “I was looking for a simplified method to extract sulforaphane from broccoli,” explains Teresa. “This would make it quicker and easier to determine whether the ingredient is also present in other vegetables.” She submitted her work to the nationwide young researcher competition “Jugend forscht,” winning first the regional contest and then the special prize at state level: one week of work experience with an MDC research group of her choice.
Tracking down genetic defects
She chose the group “DNA Repair and Maintenance of Genome Stability” led by Michela Di Virgilio, which investigates how breaks in DNA occur and the effects that these lesions can have. “I find this topic really interesting, especially as we have already learned about DNA in class,” explains Teresa. Though the experience mostly involved observing the team as they carried out their lab work, she did get involved in certain processes. Laboratory manager Lisa Keller showed her how to carry out gel electrophoresis – a method that enables DNA to be separated based on its size. Teresa was also responsible for preparing laboratory mice with the help of one of the scientists in Di Virgilio’s group, Ali Rahjouei. The cells of these mice are used for DNA analyses.
Dream job: pathologist
Teresa’s favorite part of her work experience were the so-called minipreps: transferring bacteria to liquid cultures to allow for the extraction of DNA fragments the following day. These are then sequenced to find out which base sequence the respective sections have – only some are relevant to the research group’s work. “We learned about this method in class, so it was exciting to experience it first hand,” explains Teresa. “It also made me realize how much work goes into every experiment.”
But when it comes to her dream job, Teresa sees her future more in medical research. Once she graduates next year, she wants to apply to study human medicine – focusing either on pathology or forensic science. “I love crime series,” she admits. “Of course, these shows are not always realistic, but I am still really interested in the pathological methods used in solving crimes.” Maybe one day the tricks she learned in Michela Di Virgilio’s laboratory will come in handy for her own career.