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The power of mentoring

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If you want to know the power of mentoring to transform lives, look no further than a wonderful relationship that began in 2018 between a talented researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) and a bright young high school student.

Neither of them knew at the time how impactful the mentorship would be. Chan Wang “Jerry” Lio, Ph.D., at the time an instructor in the lab of Principal Investigator Anjana Rao, Ph.D., remembers volunteering to mentor summer intern Allison Bien, a 16-year-old from San Diego’s Torrey Pines High School.

“I was impressed with her resume, but the challenge we faced was that this would be the first time I mentored a high school student, and Allison, while fascinated with science and having been honored for her high school experiments, understandably was a bit intimidated at the prospect of working at a major research institute.”

“It was a little overwhelming at first,“ Allison admits. “I had recently discovered a love for biology, but this was the first time I actually held a pipette in my hands. It was also my first experience learning about immunology and
epigenetics.”

Fortunately, because both Dr. Lio and Allison are remarkable in their own ways, there were a lot of positives going in. Dr. Lio, who was born in Macau and educated in Taiwan and the U.S., was promoted as a Young Independent Investigator in 2018, and was awarded a $750,000 “Transition to Independence” grant from LJI partner Kyowa Kirin Pharmaceutical Research, Inc. And, significantly, he says, he has always had a passion for helping and teaching other people.

Allison had always had a predisposition towards biology. In addition to her 4.0 grade average, she was a key team member on her school’s iGEM project in 2018, and was captain of the iGEM team last year. iGEM—which stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine—is a synthetic biology research competition where high school, college, and graduate school students from around the world create sophisticated research projects and present their findings at an international conference.

With Dr. Lio’s assistance, Allison was able to conduct research for her iGEM team at the Institute.

“The hundreds of hours spent in the lab, all the late nights, and the help that Dr. Lio provided really paid off,” Allison says. “We competed against 77 high schools around the world, and our Torrey Pines High School iGEM team won a bronze medal, a silver medal, and two nominations over the past two years. It’s really exciting to be recognized on an international stage.” Both Dr. Lio and Allison agree that from the very beginning the two had immediate chemistry.

“I think both Allison and I have a similar spark and passion for learning,” Dr. Lio says. “From the beginning I could see how excited and motivated Allison was. She was an incredibly quick study. She also has a great mind for science with an outstanding ability to think logically while showing remarkable dedication and perseverance. I think Allison has what it takes to be a true superstar.”

Allison recalls her first interaction with Dr. Lio. “When I first met Dr. Lio and he explained the research going on in the Rao lab, a new sense of urgency was ignited in me. I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but the way he explained it made me believe to the core that it was important. Enough so that it made me go home and read every article on TET2/TET3 genes I could find.”

From cracking jokes to discussing food to sharing serious moments of contemplation, a deeper relationship has developed between Allison and Dr. Lio. He now trusts her to assist him with his own research in a paid position in which she works 20 to 30 hours a week at the Institute during her senior year.

“Mentoring Allison has been a real highlight of my time here at LJI,” Dr. Lio says. “I’ve learned so much about teaching and managing people that will help me for the rest of my career. I really have felt a lot of joy in sharing my knowledge with Allison and watching her develop. I’m also thrilled and honored to play a role in LJI’s important mission of helping influence and prepare the next generation of scientists.”

Allison is appreciative of the opportunity the Institute has provided her and she hopes it will help her achieve her goal of applying for a M.D.-Ph.D. program that will enable her to study cancer and hopefully benefit the lives of patients through her work. She says she could not have done it without the help of her mentor.

“Dr. Lio taught me patience and persistence, and his encouragement has been critical to my success through all my mistakes and failed experiments,” Allison says. “I consider meeting Dr. Lio to be one of the most fortunate things that has happened to me because it has inspired me to pursue the dreams I have today. As a student and a friend, I am so grateful for Dr. Lio’s teaching and support.”