Intern’s work identifying malaria antibodies impresses researchers

Tania Dobrescu working in a lab
Tania Dobrescu, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, spent the last two summers interning at the Naval Medical Research Center. (Photo courtesy NMRC)

By Leila Uginčius
University Public Affairs

Administrators at the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, were so impressed with 2018 summer intern Tania Dobrescu that they invited her back to work in the same lab this past summer.

“It was a good fit for me because the environment in my lab was very fast paced,” said Dobrescu, a junior in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering. “I was constantly learning new skills and conducting experiments almost every day. I got to work on cutting-edge research with many extremely skilled and experienced scientists.

“Best of all, I believe in the research that I was doing and I am humbled to be able to contribute to the development of something that will have a positive impact on the world.”

That work involved testing cloned human antibodies against various strains of malaria. In 2018, Dobrescu — who one day hopes to attend medical school — identified two types of antibodies that were able to bind to all of the different strains. When she returned this summer, those two types of antibodies had been re-engineered from Immunoglobulin M — those usually associated with the early onset phase of an infection — to Immunoglobulin G — those generally associated with long-term immunity or reactivity toward a pathogen.

“This was so amazing to me,” Dobrescu said. “I didn't even know that such a thing was possible. It made me realize that my work last summer actually contributed to the ultimate goal of the lab.”

Dobrescu always knew she wanted a career in engineering. Only, she thought it would be in sound engineering and music production, not the electrical engineering she currently studies at VCU.

“Slowly I came to accept the fact that I am not actually musically inclined or talented at all,” Dobrescu said.

But in high school she discovered an affinity for medicine when she was studying to become a volunteer emergency medical technician.

“I believe in the research that I was doing and I am humbled to be able to contribute to the development of something that will have a positive impact on the world.”

“I was able to see my potential to have such a positive impact on people's lives,” she said.

The Romania native who grew up in Arlington, Virginia, chose electrical engineering for her pre-med track, she said, because it’s a field that she would love to work in if she changes her mind about medicine. “I mean, just five years ago I really thought I wanted a career in the music industry,” Dobrescu said. She chose VCU because she won the merit-based provost scholarship, which will allow her to graduate debt free.

“I like emergency medicine because it's kind of like a puzzle,” Dobrescu said. “As a first responder, I get to figure out to the best of my ability what my patient's needs are and how to best help them. As a doctor in an emergency room, I will be in charge of really figuring out what's wrong with my patient before sending them off to a different department for specialty care or sending them home.”

While malaria was her primary focus during the internship, Dobrescu made the most of her time at the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program, learning about research on other projects at the center.

“Every week, we had a different researcher come speak to us about their projects,” she said. “I worked only on malaria, so I would ask lots of questions because I wanted to learn as much as I could about all the other research going on. Some of the projects also had some overlap with my project so I would ask questions in order to learn more and see if I can apply some of their methods to my research.”

Her level of interaction and discussion with those researchers puts Dobrescu in a different category than other interns, said Sofia Casares, Ph.D., senior scientist in the Infectious Diseases Directorate, and Dobrescu’s mentor.

"Dobrescu has been remarkably brilliant in discussions on all topics every week during the weekly student lunch seminar,” Casares said. “She asks probing, thoughtful questions of each speaker that reflect a keen scientific mind and broad exposure to many different topics.”

Because of the positive impact Dobrescu had on researchers and her peers, the NMRC highlighted her in one of its brand awareness campaigns, said Jerome Martin, NMRC public affairs specialist.

“More specifically, Ms. Dobrescu was featured in ‘My Life, My Lab,’ which focuses on our sailors’ and civilian employees’ character in and outside of the labs,” he said. “Ms. Dobrescu is our first intern to be included.”

Excited by the progress the lab has made in the past year, Dobrescu plans to apply to next year’s program.