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From a New Graduate Program to a National Institutes of Health Internship

CLAREMONT, Calif. – Over the course of five weeks, Viridiana Murillo, MSGDA ’20, increased her confidence and skill in using the R programming language, which she first learned in her Master of Science in Human Genetics and Genomic Data Analytics (MSGDA) program at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI). She made significant headway in studying the cellular diversity and evolutionary origins of the immune system, part of a larger effort to develop a new method to predict the immune cell types encoded in a genome. She met Dr. Francis Collins, the physician and geneticist who led the International Genome Project and now serves as the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Murillo, a member of the inaugural class of KGI’s MSGDA program, was still only halfway through the brand-new NIH Graduate Data Science Summer Program. She was one of just 12 students nationwide that the NIH selected for the 10-week internship program held in Bethesda, MD during the summer of 2019. Murillo was the only student from California and the only Latina to participate.

“It was a great honor and privilege to be there. I was doing research and learning alongside world-class scientists at one of the most prestigious biomedical research centers in the world,” says Murillo, who was being mentored by Dr. John O’Shea in the Molecular Immunology and Inflammation Branch of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) at the NIH. “Being at the NIH also provided me with a unique perspective on the resources, databases, and other tools that are available.”

The NIH internship enables graduate students to gain mentors in the field while learning how to use their computational skills to address questions in biomedical research that have an impact on society. In addition to research, the program incorporates leadership and professional development; weekly seminars; boot camps on using web services for data analytics; and opportunities to mentor undergraduate and high school students also interning at the NIH.

“The reason I was interested in the program was that I would gain the foundation to become a resilient and learning scientist. It would complement what I’m learning through the MSGDA by further developing my research, computational, and communication skills, both written and verbal,” says Murillo.

“This would equip me with the necessary skills and professional network to prepare for any career path in genomics and genomic data science that I choose.”

Murillo arrived at the NIH with a clear idea about her career path within healthcare. But the internship she calls “a dream come true” has broadened her perspective.

“My desire is to continue to grow professionally and to help clinicians and patients understand the molecular mechanisms of complex diseases, with an emphasis on critically ill pediatric patients,” says Murillo. “I realized there were so many possibilities I didn’t think of or knew existed that would allow me to fulfill my goal. I took advantage of every opportunity available to me during my time there. I truly was there to learn.”