Irene Wong ’17: in science and Nature

Headed for a Harvard PhD program, Wong is about to graduate Brandeis and get a credit in the journal Nature

Irene Wong '17
Irene Wong ’17 went to work in biologist Suzanne Paradis’ lab in her sophomore year. Soon she was helping to carry out complicated experiments, looking at how to suppress neural activity that can lead to seizure-like behavior in brains.

Wong wrote her senior thesis at Brandeis on the protein Semaphorin-4D (Sema4D) and its potential as a novel antiepileptic drug.

Next year, she will start at the PhD program in biological and biomedical sciences at Harvard. “As a science major, it’s been really accessible for me to do anything I wanted at Brandeis,” Wong says. “Brandeis had everything I needed.”

Wong grew up in Malden, Massachusetts. Her parents immigrated here from China in the 1980s. Her father works as a machinist at General Electric while her mother is a food preparer at Marriott Hotels. She’s in the first generation in her family to attend college. Wong attended Brandeis on a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowship.

Wong says she got interested in the sciences because of the great teachers she had at her middle and high school. Beginning her junior year at high school, she worked with a cancer researcher for three summers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “That’s when I learned what it was like to work in a lab,” she says. From her work there, she is now a co-first author on a 2016 paper in Cancer Research.

Wong says she was also heavily inspired by Paradis, an associate professor in the department of Biology. Paradis, Wong says, taught her the importance of staying focused on your objective and avoiding the distractions offered by the latest trends in the field. “You have to be really, really stringent about what you do,” Wong says. “You can’t just do an experiment because it’s cool or you’re using a new technique that’s really flashy. It has to mean something within the context of your project.”

Her high quality research in Paradis’ lab led Irv Epstein, Henry F. Fischbach Professor of Chemistry, to recommended Wong for the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The program funds summer research experiences for undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds and groups underrepresented in the sciences.  

Wong used the funding she received from EXROP to work at Harvard in the lab of George Daley, one of the country’s preeminent stem cell researchers. As a result of her research in the Daley lab, she is a contributing author on an upcoming paper in Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals.

When it came time to apply to PhD programs, Wong said she had a leg up on her competition because of the tools Brandeis provided to her. “You meet students from other universities and a lot of them don’t have the same opportunities as Brandeis students,” she says. “It’s very common here to get into a lab.”

Wong plans to specialize in cancer research, where she feels she can make a contribution in the search for a cure. “It’s still a maturing field,” she says, “but we know a lot more than we used to.”

Categories: Science and Technology

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage