• Kisha Thayapran, class of 2018 and Caltech Associates SURF Student

From Textbooks to the Immunology Lab Bench

An Interview with Caltech Associates SURF Student Kisha Thayapran, class of 2018

Kisha Thayapran, class of 2018, was awarded a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) funded by the Caltech Associates. We met with her to find out what she has enjoyed most about her research experience and why she chose to come to Caltech. 

Name: Kisha Thayapran, class of 2018
Hometown: Porterville, CA
Major: Biology

Why did you choose Caltech?

Caltech's reputation for excellence in all aspects definitely intrigued me. Reading about the incredible research, student life, and academics online helped me realize Caltech would be a good fit for me. I also heard about Caltech from family friends and a friend of mine who attended and graduated from Caltech just before I started college. I like the close-knit feel that Caltech has, compared to other universities. My twin sister is also at Caltech. We are in the same year and both majoring in biology, so it is a special opportunity that we both got accepted and now get to share our Caltech experience.

What do you enjoy most about being a student at Caltech?

I really enjoy being able to participate in research the most. While my studies at Caltech have taught me a lot, working in a laboratory is so satisfying because I get to apply what I have been learning. I think it's really rewarding to actually participate in what I've only ever read about or learned in classes.

I am also involved in Caltech's chamber orchestra and enjoy playing and performing with the group.


Who are you working with for your SURF summer, and what is your project focused on?

This summer, my SURF is in the lab of Professor Ellen Rothenberg [Caltech's Albert Billings Ruddock Professor of Biology], under the direct supervision of Jonas Ungerbäck, a postdoc in the lab. Professor Rothenberg investigates the regulatory mechanisms that control blood stem cell differentiation and the development of T lymphocytes (also called T-cells)—white blood cells that play an important role in immunity.
My project focuses on investigating T-cells' differentiation from hematopoietic stem cells. Specifically, we're trying to understand how the transcription factor GATA-3 regulates T-cell differentiation by suppressing B-cell fates. This project is currently in the preliminary stages, and with this SURF, we've set up the base for more experimentation. But in the long term, findings from this project could potentially give us a way to control T-cell/B-cell ratios, or even divert B-cell lineage programs to T-cell ones and vice versa. T-cells function in cell-mediated immunity, while B-cells function in antigen-mediated immunity, so you can see how they are very distinct and serve different but related roles.

What most excites you about your SURF project?

I'm most excited to learn more about the fields that my project focuses on—immunology and stem cell biology—and hopefully get exciting data from my project! I'm also looking forward to getting to know the other scientists working in the lab.

If you could have a superpower, what would you choose and why?

I really enjoy learning languages, so my superpower would probably be the ability to speak, read, and write any language—dead and modern languages and different dialects included. I can't even imagine the amazing things someone could do with that power! And at the very least, I could watch international movies without subtitles.

Closing sentiments?

SURF is a golden opportunity for undergraduates, like me, to get exposed to and partake in real, relevant research. The experience I've gained from my SURF is invaluable, and I'm truly grateful to the Caltech SURF program for giving me the opportunity and to Associates donors for continuing to support undergraduate research. I'm hoping to attend medical school in the future and continue research in immunology and stem-cell research after I graduate.