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Heartfelt Enthusiasm for Work-Study Program
Angelo Torrente, PhD, a postdoctoral scientist at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute who hopes to unravel the mysteries of the human heartbeat, is enthusiastic about his new colleague, Audrey Zaini. "She's like my second hand," he said. Without her, he figures, his data analysis would take twice as long.
Zaini not only is an asset to Torrente and his mentor, Joshua Goldhaber, MD, the Heart Institute's director of basic research. She also is the first enrollee in a new work-study program at Cedars-Sinai, which is designed to defray tuition costs for undergraduate and graduate students while providing educational experiences to them and valuable assistance to researchers.
The program is administered through Cedars-Sinai Academic Human Resources and UCLA, which partially subsidizes wages for the students. Participants may work up to 20 hours a week.
A UCLA senior pursuing pre-med studies, Zaini, 22, arrived at Cedars-Sinai in January. She works in Goldhaber's laboratory three days a week, splitting her time between general lab tasks and research. Recently, she has been helping Torrente with a study on the sinoatrial or sinus node, a small layer of tissue close to the right atrium that generates electrical impulses to start the heart beating.
Until she began working with Torrente, Zaini said, "I never knew the sinoatrial node existed. You never think about how your heart works." Besides learning new subjects, she said, she values the opportunity to join a "good team" and to use equipment, such as confocal microscopes, that she would not otherwise encounter.
"Audrey does an awesome job," said Scott Lamp, Goldhaber's management assistant, who interviewed more than a dozen applicants for the work-study position. "She has a really positive attitude."
Torrente and Zaini are currently focused on the possible role of a protein in the sinoatrial node in the heart's pacemaker function. The protein is known as the sodium-calcium exchanger. "How is the pacemaker activity generated?" Torrente asked. "It should be obvious. But it is not."
To learn more about the process, Torrente has knocked out the sodium-calcium exchanger in mouse models. Together, he and Zaini are analyzing confocal microscope imagery of calcium releases in these mice, versus a control group, and plotting them against heartbeat patterns. They also are examining the impact of certain drugs on these functions.
The research potentially may shed light on sick sinus syndrome, a puzzling disorder in which the heart beats irregularly, and suggest possible experimental treatments for it. Many sick sinus patients eventually need artificial pacemakers.
A U.S. citizen born in Surabaya, Indonesia, Zaini is part of a diverse, international team in the Goldhaber lab, whose members hail from Italy, India, China and other countries. Her interest in healthcare is a family affair. Her grandfather was a surgeon in Indonesia, and her parents encouraged her to prepare for medical school. While doing so, Zaini said she became fascinated by biology.
Zaini still is deciding which field of medicine to enter. Commenting on her work-study experience, she said, "I like working in the lab. But I have learned that I want more patient interaction." So far, a career combining both activities looks attractive to her.
Whatever path she eventually takes, Zaini said her time at Cedars-Sinai, scheduled to run until June next year, will have been well spent.
"I hope other labs join the work-study program," she said. "It's good for the labs and for the students."
For more information about the program, including how to submit potential job descriptions, please contact Denise Gallagher at email@example.com or 310-248-8642.
The IACUC number for animals in research referenced in this article is 3574.
Photo: Angelo Torrente, PhD, a postdoctoral scientist at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, and work-study student Audrey Zaini, a senior at UCLA; a sinoatrial node in a mouse heart; photo provided by Angelo Torrente, PhD