Chemistry Major Interns with Brain and Spine Institute (ICM) in Paris

Spela Kunstelj

B.S. Chemistry

Špela Kunstelj is driven by boundless curiosity, both about the world around us and the inner workings of the human brain.  

Špela – a junior Chemistry major – recently pursued that curiosity and sense of adventure through a coveted internship at the Brain and Spine Institute (ICM) in Paris, France during the fall 2019 semester.  

Since fall 2017, Špela has been assisting Assistant Professor Frank X. Vazquez, Ph.D. with computational chemistry research on one of the proteins implicated in Parkinson’s disease. At ICM, she worked with another group studying Parkinson’s, this time in a “wet lab” conducting hands-on research.   

“Through working in Dr. Vazquez’s computational lab and the Paris ‘wet lab,’ I got to see different research environments and different approaches to the same problem,” she said.  

Along with doctoral and postdoctoral students at ICM, Špela grew midbrain organoids from stem cells, counted RNA and DNA in the sample, and dissected the organoids to identify the cells that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that signifies midbrain cells, an important area of the brain in the development of Parkinson’s.  

While in Paris, Špela lived at the St. John’s University Paris location. She attended her internship during the day and completed her coursework in the evenings. Having studied French since the third grade, Špela enjoyed every moment of free time enjoying the city, visiting Paris’s museums and cultural institutions on the weekends.  

“I went to the Louvre four times so I could see everything there,” she said.  

In her French class, Špela was also encouraged to explore and take pictures of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods and places of worship, an assignment that appealed to her adventurous spirit.  

The semester in Paris was not Špela’s first exposure to international travel. Her father is a Slovenian diplomat and she has lived around the world, in Argentina, Canada, and Italy. She came to St. John’s because of its Catholic, Vincentian mission and the community for international students on campus.  

“The first words someone said to me when I arrived at St. John’s were, ‘Welcome Home,’” she said.  

On the Queens campus, Špela is involved in several student organizations. She completed Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Ambassador training, is a mentor in Project AIM, and is part of the S-STEM Scholars Program. She is also a Career Peer, and the social media coordinator for the St. John’s chapter of the American Chemical Society (ACS).  

After graduation, Špela aims to pursue a Ph.D. in Chemistry and address issues of sustainable development.  

“Chemistry is the key in the problems I want to solve,” she said. It also satisfies her deep curiosity: “Chemistry is so vast; you can study anything.”