This summer in Professor Eyal Amiel’s laboratory, undergraduate student Joe Kajander cultures human dendritic cells— the special cells that help activate the immune system — to investigate the mechanisms behind their sugar metabolism during phagocytosis, the process by which the cells break down pathogens.

“Dendritic cells have roles in viral and bacterial infections, cancer and autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis,” he explained. “If we are better able to understand their metabolism, there may be ways for us to increase or decrease their metabolism to fight disease or reduce abnormal immune response.”

Kajander’s research follows up on projects he pursued during the school year. This summer, he chose to stay at UVM and do research work as a student employee, earning money to cover living expenses. He says summer is an ideal time to delve into research projects.

“I could have gone home (to Reading, Massachusetts) and picked up where I left off in the fall, but I like being in the lab, and being in Burlington in the summer,” he said. “It’s a happening place, a young city. There’s always something to do here.”

He also enjoys the camaraderie among the lab teams.

“Being friends with Ph.D. students and professors and seeing what their days are like has been so valuable. I’m getting exposure to what academic research looks like — grant-writing, presenting to reviewers, making revisions,” said Kajander. “There’s also a lot of cross-collaboration within our department. All of the labs act as resources for each other. We share our research and tap each other for advice. It’s a cool community.”

Climbing the ladder

Kajander intends to pursue medical school, with a focus on infectious diseases. Someday, he’d like to be a professor. Now in his third year working in the Amiel lab, Kajander says he’s “thinking like a scientist.” He started as a student employee in his first year, cleaning pipettes and preparing specimens for the researchers. He quickly moved into “benchwork” — mixing chemicals and growing cells.

“Getting my foot in the door early made a huge difference. Now I’m asking important questions, forming hypotheses and thinking through problems,” he said. “In research, you can go in a million different directions and explore anything. The better you get at asking questions, the better you get at plotting your path.”

In addition to working in the lab, Kajander is a teaching assistant for microbiology and an active member of the Biochemistry Society. He recommends that incoming students explore opportunities, join clubs and ask professors what more you can do in their major.

“There are a lot of cool things you can do here aside from classes. If you are interested in something, ask around and see if there’s something you can do with it. If you think you might like it, give it a try. You never know what you’ll stumble upon.”