Undergraduate Spotlight: Maia Kotelanski (Trinity ’25)
After working in a cancer immunotherapy lab at the National Institutes of Health (and joining an autopsy on her very first day), Maia Kotelanski (Trinity ’25) knew she wanted to pursue a future in scientific research and medicine. Originally from Bethesda, Maryland, Kotelanski currently works as an undergraduate researcher in the Pendergast Lab, where she studies the mechanisms of tyrosine kinases in cancer metastasis. She hopes to major in Biology with a minor in Religious Studies.
In conversation with Reed Lessing (Editor-in-Chief of Vertices’ Science Magazine, Trinity ’25), Kotelanski shares how she fell in love with cancer biology and offers advice to students looking to get involved with research at Duke.
Seen Right: Maia Kotelanski. Image courtesy of Reed Lessing.
RL: How and when did you first become interested in biology and life sciences?
MK: I wasn't super interested in science until ninth grade. I enjoyed all of my humanities classes more because I thought they were more creative than the way I had experienced science in the classroom. The way I understood science as a kid was pretty fact-based, and I didn't see how I could personally engage with it. But when I took Biology in ninth grade, I loved it all of a sudden. I had so many questions every time we learned something new — I would ask them until my teacher tried capping how many questions I could ask in one class! In tenth grade, I signed up for Anatomy and Physiology. Once again, I sat in the front row, asked a million questions, and was really fascinated by everything in the human body.
RL: How did you explore science outside of the classroom?
One morning, my anatomy teacher called me in to explain that she recommends one student to work at the [National Institutes of Health] every year. She asked if I was interested. It wasn’t the easiest decision: working at NIH was a two-year commitment that required me to leave school at 12:50 p.m. every day, drive over, and spend my afternoon there until 5 p.m. for my last two years of high school. I had to sacrifice my lunch period with my friends — which was a big deal at the time — and quit band. But I said yes.
Beginning the summer after tenth grade, I spent my time at the NIH training in a cancer biology lab, where we conducted immunotherapy research for over 70 clinical trials. My role was to master a circulating tumor cell assay that only my lab was capable of conducting. It was really exciting to be working in a research lab at a top institution and not, like, be washing beakers. At NIH, I first learned how to ask questions in a really supportive environment.
RL: When did you decide that you wanted to pursue medicine?
MK: On my very first day working at NIH, I actually went to an autopsy. Unfortunately, a patient from one of the clinical trials had just passed away, so we had to collect post-mortem samples to explore the underlying biology. I was hesitant, but my PI suggested that I go — and I didn’t know how to say no on my first day. It was eye-opening: right away I saw a human side of scientific research that was very different from the dark, windowless lab that I worked in. My coworkers explained that they needed separation from human patients to do their research well, but I knew that wasn’t the case for me. I started learning about the idea of doing research and being a doctor.
RL: It sounds like an M.D.-Ph.D. is in the cards for you.
RL: Let’s talk about your research at Duke. How did you get involved?
MK: After graduating high school, I decided to take a gap year, so I went to Israel, studied humanities, and didn't really think about science for a year. But I really missed working in the lab! I applied to Duke’s Huang Fellows Program and committed to joining a lab the summer after my first year.
RL: Since last summer, you’ve worked as an undergraduate researcher in the Pendergast Lab. What questions are you investigating?
MK: The Pendergast Lab is in the Department of Cancer Biology and Pharmacology. We study the ABL tyrosine kinases, which are a prominent class of targets for cancer therapies. They were previously used as targets in the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia, but my lab is investigating how this strategy can be applied to fight other types of cancers, including solid cancers. We also use our knowledge of ABL as a flashlight to learn more about the biology, mechanisms, and pathways it is involved in.
Seen Left: Maia Kotelanski presents her research on ABL tyrosine kinases at the North Carolina Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Kotelanski.
RL: Very cool. What are the long-term implications of your research?
MK: Right now, I'm working with my mentor, a Ph.D. student, on a project that aims to create a better therapy for lung cancer by using our ABL inhibitor as a synergistic therapy with other targeted therapies. Along the way, we’re also hoping to learn more about the mechanisms underlying cancer metastasis and ABL’s role in metabolism.
RL: Outside of biology, you are also pursuing a minor in religion. How has that affected your perspective on science?
MK: I went to a Jewish day school, so I had a pretty strong religious upbringing. I am really interested in religion and love tracing the questions that people ask throughout history — that’s very similar to science to me. When it comes to medicine, I’m interested in how a physician’s background influences their approach to medicine and how treatments can be more accommodating to people with different religious beliefs. If we're trying to provide healing, we need to be really understanding of people and the personal beliefs that they hold.
RL: What has been your greatest challenge as an undergraduate researcher and how are you learning from it?
MK: I can think of two main things. The first is time management. I am really excited about the research that I'm doing, but sometimes, after several hours in the lab, I get nervous about balancing my studying and homework. One way I’m approaching that challenge is by relying on my mentor to help conduct multi-part experiments and plan my schedule accordingly. I've learned that I do my best research when I don't feel stressed, under pressure, or unprepared.
A second challenge is that my lab has gotten to a place in our research that we aren’t yet super familiar with. It’s been challenging to figure out how to approach our new questions and find the best techniques to do so. I’ve learned to rely more heavily on senior scientists and my PI to guide that process. It’s inspiring to see how people who have been in the field of cancer biology know so much and can quote papers from years before! That’s something I aspire to be able to do — to really have that much knowledge.
Seen Right: A snapshot of Kotelanski at her lab bench in the Pendergast Lab. Image courtesy of Maia Kotelanski.
RL: What advice do you have for other Duke undergraduates looking to get involved in research?
MK: I would say don't rush it. If you're a first-year student, let yourself settle in. If research is something you're interested in, you're going to want to give it the time it deserves. I would also encourage you to spend a summer starting your research project and discussing your interests with professors and advisors. That's a great place to start because mentorship is super important — especially if you're doing research for the first time. Finally, be super communicative — even to the point where you might seem annoying by explaining when you’re struggling or asking for feedback.
RL: What inspires you?
MK: I am really inspired by everything there is to learn about disease. Drawing from my family's own experiences with cancer, I've seen the two sides of illness — in the lab and also in a family member. It’s exciting to think about the potential clinical applications of our research.
RL: What are your favorite ways to spend time at Duke?
MK: I love playing on Club Water Polo every Sunday, spending time with friends, and going to workout classes at Wilson. I think the people at Duke are amazing, and it's rare to be in an environment like this, so I’m focused on making the most of my time here.