July 14, 2022

A head start in lab research

Isabella Castellano-Moen in a laboratory
Isabella Castellano-Moen

Isabella Castellano-Moen just finished her freshman year at UW-Madison, but she’s already gotten hands-on experience in a cancer virology lab.

Castellano-Moen is an undergraduate researcher working in the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, a valuable partner of the UW Carbone Cancer Center. The experience is not only helping her prepare for future classwork but also confirming that she would like to spend her career working in research.

“I really love being in the lab,” said Castellano-Moen, who is from Janesville. “I know this is the work I want to do.”

McArdle focuses on basic cancer research that examines the causes and biology of cancer and the factors that regulate normal and abnormal cell growth and differentiation. Their innovative work drives breakthroughs in understanding the causes and risks for cancer, as well as developing cutting-edge treatments.

Castellano-Moen is part of a lab team overseen by Dr. Bill Sugden, an expert in cancer virology whose team examines Epstein-Barr Virus and Kaposi’s Sarcoma Herpesvirus, as well as the many types of cancers associated with them.

Her path to this role started as a student at Janesville Parker High School. Castellano-Moen said she was always interested in medicine, particularly the cancer field, and she thought that meant becoming a doctor. She also loved doing lab projects, so when her biology teacher Dr. Zach Pratt started a summer research program for high school students, she was eager to join.

The Janesville Summer Research Institute gives students practical experience in research by studying virus interactions with E. coli bacteria. Pratt said part of benefit for students in conducting experiences is learning how to deal with unexpected results and use problem-solving skills to figure out what happened and how to improve.

Visiting McArdle is an extension of that experience. Pratt worked in Sugden’s lab during his graduate study at UW, and he wanted to inspire students to think about research careers.

“It’s so rewarding for me to see them so excited,” Pratt said of bringing his students to McArdle.

Castellano-Moen credits Pratt’s program with giving her a connection, and a confidence boost, to pursue a role in the Sugden lab.

“If it wasn’t for Dr. Pratt, I definitely would not be working here,” she said.

Her first semester was spent getting familiar with the lab and assisting with cleaning and maintaining lab materials. In her second semester, she started her own mentored research projects.

Castellano-Moen hopes that more high school and undergraduate students see that there are options to get lab experience even as a freshman or sophomore, and that they shouldn’t feel intimidated by being a beginner.

“I realized it’s not as scary as I thought it would be,” she said. “Everyone here is a joy to work with.”