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Q&A: Oppman ’25 Interns with the Harper Cancer Research Institute

Tom Oppman ’25 working in the White Lab.

The Harper Cancer Research Institute at the University of Notre Dame is changing the way we fight cancer through innovative research, and now Tom Oppman ’25 can say he’s played a part.

Oppman, a biochemistry major from Niles, Michigan, is spending his summer interning at the Institute, working under Katharine White, assistant professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Notre Dame.

“I feel very lucky to have secured this spot for the summer,” said Oppman, a Global Health Initiative (GHI) fellow and president of Wabash’s Public Health Organization.

“The White Lab is doing some incredibly interesting, frontier research on cancer and pH,” he said. “I’ve already learned so much, and I’m thrilled to contribute to such important research.”

Oppman talks about what it’s been like interning in the laboratory, the lessons he’s learned, and his goals for the future.

Q: How did you connect to this internship?

I got connected with Dr. White with help from one of my Wabash chemistry professors, Dr. Wally Novak. I’ve helped with research in his lab for a few semesters now, and he suggested that I reach out and ask if there were any summer spots open.

What do you do as an intern for the Harper Cancer Research Institute?

I’m working in the White Lab, which is focused on studying intracellular pH dynamics. As an undergraduate in the lab, a lot of my time has been spent learning the ropes of some different techniques, procedures, and equipment that are commonplace in a biochemistry lab. I get to work alongside more experienced graduate students and postdoctoral fellows working in the lab as well. I’ve learned a lot about microscopy, and I’ve been working on a subcloning project for a novel pH indicator that could be used to study pH in living cells.

“An image of some cancerous lung cells which are expressing a specific protein (shown in red) due to a sequence of DNA that I designed and transfected into them,” Oppman explained.

What is something new you have learned about yourself or this type of work through the internship?

I’ve gained confidence in running common procedures by myself, things like polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and cell culture. I’ve also learned a lot about what professional-level research looks on the inside; how scientists communicate their results, troubleshoot their setbacks, and encourage each other to think about problems in new ways. I’m really looking forward to applying what I’ve learned as I continue to pursue my education and research interests at Wabash.

What do you hope to get out of this experience? What are your goals?

I’d like to get to a place where I’m comfortable and confident working independently in a research lab. Ideally, I’d also like to get some significant results and data in my projects for the summer. Scientific research can be full of setbacks, so I’m hopeful that I can continue to apply what I’ve learned in a way that are meaningful and effective.