Whether she’s blocking shots as goalie for the men’s ice hockey team or examining cancer cells as a research assistant in the Whitehead Institute, MIT senior Kate Koch loves a challenge.
A new Marshall Scholar, Koch will study radiation biology in a master’s program at Oxford University next year, after which she plans to pursue an MD/PhD. One day, she hopes to practice as a pediatric oncologist and run her own research lab. “I never wanted to be anything besides a doctor, since the first time someone asked me, ‘What do you want to be?’” Koch says.
Koch was born just 10 minutes from MIT at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, but her parents — both physicians — moved the family to Ohio when she was a few months old. She grew up with two younger brothers in Cleveland, attending an all-girls’ school called Hathaway Brown.
“The school I went to did a really good job getting girls excited about math and science,” Koch says. “They said, ‘You’re smart, you’re intelligent, you can do this.’”
Koch loved her calculus and chemistry classes, and as a sophomore, she began doing research on multiple sclerosis at the Lerner Research Institute through a research program offered by her high school. When it came time to look at colleges, Koch wasn’t initially sold on MIT.
“MIT was not really on my radar until my senior year of high school — I thought I might not fit in, and might not have fun there,” Koch admits. Then she visited campus. “The students here were so enthusiastic; there was just such a positive vibe and energy,” she says.
Some months later — on March 14 at 1:59 p.m., to be exact — Koch was sitting in the bleachers of an ice hockey state championship game. Just as the winning goal was scored, she opened her acceptance email and joined the crowds in cheering.
Skates in one hand, camera in the other
Koch started figure skating when she was 2 years old; four years later, when her younger brother came home with ice hockey gear, she demanded a shot at that, too. “After that, I really fell in love with it, and it was a great way to grow up,” Koch says.
As the only girl on the team, Koch needed a dose of determination, which she had in no short supply. “When I was really little, there was always the, ‘You shouldn’t be here, go play with your Barbies,’” Koch says. “When they said, ‘Girls don’t play hockey,’ I said, ‘Yes, they do.’” In high school, Koch joined the women’s ice hockey team as a goalie.
When Koch got to MIT, she sought to continue playing hockey at a challenging level. She still remembers walking into the ice rink during the first few weeks of her freshman year and seeing the men’s hockey team seated on the bleachers, looking at her quizzically as she asked to join the team. “I think they were a little skeptical in the beginning, because they’d never had a girl on their team before,” Koch says. Now, she says, she considers members of the team some of her closest friends.
When she doesn’t have hockey skates on her feet, Koch is likely to have a camera in her hands. Back in Cleveland, she and a friend would sneak into abandoned industrial buildings for interesting shots. At MIT, she pursues her photographic passion through classes in the Art, Culture and Technology program, where she works on projects that examine the “relationship between science and what it means to be human,” Koch says.
Shots at cancer
During her sophomore year at MIT, Koch began doing cancer research in the lab of biology professor David Sabatini. During her three years as a research assistant, Koch has seen firsthand how difficult the disease is to target. Researchers must determine how to destroy the many different types of cancer cells that exist, while simultaneously protecting healthy cells.
“It’s vastly complex, and there are a lot of different people working on different parts of this problem: How do we kill this heterogeneous mass of cancer cells, but also how do we do it in a way that’s not going to affect your normal cells?” Koch explains.
Koch has helped to investigate one potential approach to the complex problem, by cutting off the cancerous cells’ energy supply. While normal cells employ two different chemical pathways, many cancer cells rely predominantly on a pathway called glycolysis to produce ATP, the cells’ energy currency.
“The question that we asked was, ‘Could you target this pathway as a therapeutic strategy?’” Koch says. If the researchers could figure out a way to inhibit glycolysis, they could theoretically “starve” the cancerous cells that depended on it for energy.
The research team sought to understand how a small toxic molecule, 3-bromopyruvate, inhibits glycolysis. They identified a transporter, MCT1, that allows 3-bromopyruvate to enter cells. While MCT1 is present on some normal cells, it is more highly expressed on certain types of cancer cells, making those cells susceptible to the lethal effects of 3-bromopyruvate.
The study proved a principle: Future research could use the same techniques as the Sabatini lab to pair a cancer-killing drug with a transporter to get it into cancerous cells. “By going about that process, you could make a ton of different chemotherapeutic agents,” Koch says.
The team’s hard work in the lab paid off. The results of the study were published in Nature Genetics in January 2013 — Koch’s first publication as a contributing author.
Koch loves the problem-solving and discovery in research, but those alone probably wouldn’t be enough to keep her in the lab, she says. It was her time volunteering at Massachusetts General Hospital that fueled her passion for cancer research, she says.
“To be able to put a face to the disease and see the other side of it — it makes it more meaningful,” Koch says. “That really reinforced the fact that I did want to do medicine, but I also want to do research and to develop more cures and targeted therapies that can help treat these patients that I’ve met.”