Ben Ayotte, a Northern Michigan University biology graduate student from Escanaba, is a wanted man—wanted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center. Not because he’s done something wrong or because he’s sick, but because he has established himself as an elite young cancer researcher. In fact, he was named one of the NIH’s outstanding summer interns last year and was asked to return as an intern this summer.
“His success at NIH is motivated by the fact that he’s a very driven young man. He has a really good project, one that he put a lot of effort into,” said Robert Winn, NMU biology professor and director of the Upper Michigan Brain Tumor Center, which is located on the NMU campus. “At the NIH, he’s getting exposed to probably the premier research institution in the country, if not the world. He’s getting exposed to things that very few people have a chance to see. And then he’s bringing that exposure and that experience back to NMU, which helps us.”
At the NIH, Ayotte is researching the role of two proteins in melanoma cell lines and cancerous tissues under Dr. Francesco Marincola, director of the infectious disease and immunogenetics section in the department of transfusion medicine.
“I’m using some fancy analysis and really expensive technology to try to understand the roles that these two proteins may play in the process of tumor formation and the proliferation of the tumor,” Ayotte said.
When Ayotte began last summer’s NIH internship, he enjoyed seeing how this research translates to patient care, something he hopes to do himself in the future.
“The most rewarding aspect about research is knowing that you are helping to serve a higher knowledge base in order to help people who have these really devastating diseases,” Ayotte said. “But the research is important because the cures are there, and it’s important because we can improve current therapies or modulate them in such a way that they can have higher efficacy. They can lead to better outcomes.”
The NIH Clinical Center’s location in Bethesda, Md., just outside of Washington D.C., was a cultural experience for Ayotte.
“It was very overwhelming at first as a student at NMU and then going to Washington D.C.,” Ayotte said. “There were a lot of people and a lot of cultural diversity, which are things I really liked about working there.”
At Northern, Ayotte studies brain tumors as a part of the Upper Michigan Brain Tumor Center, a collaboration between Marquette General Hospital and NMU. He said that research has helped him excel in the NIH internships.
“NMU prepared me very well for my internships. I’ve had very high-level biology classes at Northern, and the lab work that I had experienced in my course work helped prepare me to understand how some of the technology was used at the NIH. It allowed me to have that background knowledge of why the techniques are important and what they’re telling you,” Ayotte said.
Ayotte believes his internships have and will help him in a number of ways: he was able to network with people in his field; he saw how research he’s interested in translates to patient care; and he became more experienced in his field.
"I would encourage all students to try and do some sort of internship program, whether it be as a prestigious institution such as the NIH or staying on campus at NMU,” Ayotte said. “Just the networking and the actual exposure in applying the knowledge that you learn at Northern at a greater skill level is really exhilarating. Getting to see that first hand is something that I would encourage all students to do no matter what their discipline is.”
Ayotte hopes to graduate in December 2012 and continue on to medical school the following fall.
“As a graduate student, I’m learning and mastering the bench work. As a physician, I will then learn more how that translates to bedside care,” Ayotte said. “So I’m hoping this internship helps bridge that gap for me between just strict laboratory experimentation and learning how that translates into clinical care.”
Left picture: Ben Ayotte and Dr. Francesco Marincola