After the whirlwind of coursework, last-minute thesis edits, and graduation prep that characterizes every Haverford senior’s spring semester, it’d be more than understandable if most—after donning their caps and gowns, queuing up by the stage, and accepting their diplomas—wanted to take a couple of days off to recharge. But biology major and anthropology and health studies double minor Alex Belfi ’18 hit the ground running.
Just two short days after graduation, she began work as a genetics department research specialist for the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. One of the job’s major perks? Covered tuition fees for two courses a term. For a medical school hopeful like Belfi, who plans to pursue a career as a pediatric oncologist, this was an opportunity that was impossible to pass up.
“This is one of the major reasons why I wanted to work in a lab specifically at Penn,” Belfi says. “I applied for Penn’s Master in Bioethics program and expect to start taking part-time courses in the fall while still working full-time in [her boss Professor Meera Sundaram’s] lab. This allows me to continue developing my interests in both the natural sciences and the social sciences over the next two years.”
In Sundaram’s lab, Belfi will work with C. elegans, a small nematode worm. This should be familiar territory for her: C.elegans is commonly used in laboratory settings to study the effects of transgenic genes on behavior—and, more than that, it’s how she came into contact with Sundaram in the first place.
“As a biology major at Haverford,” she says, “I worked in [Associate Professor of Biology Robert Fairman’s] lab… Rob studies neurodegenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, and just recently started looking into Alzheimer’s disease.”
For her senior thesis, Belfi ultimately decided to follow in Fairman’s footsteps, conducting experiments on C. elegans on amyloid-beta aggregation, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. By chance, the clones necessary to complete her experiments were provided by none other than Sundaram’s lab. “[She] coincidentally was looking to hire a new lab tech—a.k.a. research specialist—to start this summer,” Belfi says. “This is how I ended up applying!”
As a tech, Belfi’s expected to carry out some of the basic chores necessary to keep any biology lab up and running—maintaining the C. elegans stocks, refreshing the liquid nitrogen containers, ordering any new chemicals her coworkers might need. But she will also have the opportunity to indulge her own scientific interests. “One of the things I really like about this lab,” she says, “is that Meera treats the techs as if they are grad students. This means that I have the freedom to run my own independent project to contribute to the work that is published by my lab.”
Because this is only a two-year position, Belfi’s already looking ahead to the future—but she hopes that her tenure at UPenn will help sharpen her focus career-wise. “With this research,” she says, “I hope to gain enough experience to decide whether to apply for an M.D. track or an M.D./Ph.D. track.”
“Where They’re Headed” is a blog series reporting on the post-collegiate plans of recent Haverford graduates.
Photo: Alex Belfi ’18 rests her elbow on a surface in the University of Pennsylvania lab where she currently works as a research specialist. Photo by Alexandra Iglesia ’21.