Makayla Mariano works during her internship at the Oak Ridge National Lab.

Pharmacists are often pictured as people in white coats filling out prescriptions at a local drug store, but Ohio Northern University student Mikayla Mariano spent her summer internship working on a different professional path with one goal in mind: fighting cancer.

Mariano, a fifth-year pharmacy major double majoring in biology from Oregon, Ohio, spent her summer as a radioisotope research intern at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, working side-by-side with some of the best academic minds in the country. Now considered the largest science and energy lab in the U.S. Department of Energy’s national system, ORNL was one of the primary sites for the World War II-era Manhattan Project.

“Most of my colleagues have such strong academic backgrounds from Ivy League schools and other larger state institutions, so I have taken pride in representing ONU at this level,” said Mariano. “I believe I have created a name for myself in the profession and proved that a small rural school can compete and perform. I also believe I have given a new perspective to the value of pharmacists, and have been able to demonstrate that the career is far more than a retail position.”

She said her love for the lab stemmed from her experiences at ONU.

“Dr. (Jeffrey) Christoff sparked my interest in nuclear pharmacy,” she said. “After taking his class I was fascinated with the potential of using radioisotopes for medical applications.”

At ORNL, she created and tested nanoparticles to be used in radiotherapeutics, a new emerging class of oncology drugs that can directly deliver radiation therapy to cancer cells without harming the healthy cells around them.

“Every day is a new challenge and I love having the ability to experiment and work independently. I also have the support from an amazing team and mentor,” Mariano said. “This work is on the forefront of cancer research and it is exhilarating to be a part of such an amazing project. I would be thrilled to continue to pursue this career.”

Mariano said the camaraderie among ORNL’s staff is strong, with everyone helping each other pursue their goals and scientific inquiry.

“Working at a national lab, there is a strong sense of community. Everyone is extremely helpful and wants to see each other succeed,” she said. “I love the culture at Oak Ridge. They have done an amazing job cultivating a safe space to grow and learn. I would be thrilled to continue to pursue this career professionally. I enjoy the environment, the people and of course the science.

“Working at a national laboratory is such a unique experience,” she added. “Although they are separate facilities, they often collaborate. I have created relationships across the country, from Los Alamos to Idaho.”

Mariano said her mentors provide her with resources and opportunities to meet with multiple graduate school programs to explore her future goals and research. She also built friendships with other interns from universities like Princeton and Drexel.

“Although our projects are separate, we have been able to navigate the internship together and push each other to do our best work,” she said. “I will forever cherish the experiences and connections I have made through this internship.”