Summertime bio research gives students head start

August 19, 2009

By hammersmith

As they join 1.5 million of their peers returning to classrooms across Arizona this month, a select group of students is arriving already revved up for learning after a summer in laboratories at some of the state’s most advanced centers of research.As they join 1.5 million of their peers returning to classrooms across Arizona this month, a select group of students is arriving already revved up for learning after a summer in laboratories at some of the state’s most advanced centers of research.

For years, assessments of workforce needs in the United States have called for greater investment in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education pipeline. One key element of better STEM preparation–involving students directly in research–is implemented each summer in bioscience internship programs at a number of Arizona research institutions. Six of the top programs are:

Biodesign Institute Summer High School Internship Program, Arizona State University

“Now that I’ve been in a real working lab, biology class definitely will click more for me,” said Desert Vista High School senior Jared Naimark, one of 15 high-school interns in the Summer High School Internship Program of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. “The projects are so amazingly cutting-edge; work done here really is the future.”

Students in the Biodesign internship program worked for six weeks on existing research projects in the laboratories of their mentor scientists. At the program’s conclusion, interns presented findings from their studies to their peers, mentors, and parents.

“Future breakthroughs in medicine and protecting our environment will depend on preparing these students to succeed,” said Alan Nelson, Biodesign’s executive director. “Challenging laboratory experiences let them see that they can have an impact, and this makes all their hard work worthwhile.”

Weimin Gao, a research scientist in ecogenomics at Biodesign, noted how rarely students receive such early opportunities to engage in research, and cited the benefit he receives from mentoring interns.

“My intern and I treated each other like scientific colleagues by exchanging ideas about the background of our project, its potential significance, and future articles to read,” he said.

“Having interns in the lab makes a big difference in their lives and on mine,” added Jeffrey LaBelle, a Biodesign researcher who specializes in bioelectronics and biosensors.

Helios Scholars Program, Translational Genomics Research Institute

The largest bioscience summer internship program in Arizona concluded July 31 with 44 Helios Scholars presenting their findings at a scientific poster symposium after eight weeks of research at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix.

“This experience is invaluable,” said Jennifer Wagner, a 31 year-old microbiology major at Arizona Sate University, in the Arizona Republic. “You can’t trade that for anything, this kind of hands-on experience, getting submerged in the lab. And they give you so much freedom.”

The third class of summer interns at TGen, which included high-school, undergraduate, and graduate students, was supported by a 25-year, $6.5 million grant to TGen from the Helios Education Foundation, the largest foundation in Arizona and Florida that concentrates exclusively on education.

Wagner and the other Helios Scholars designed their own research projects in consultation with TGen scientists who served as their mentors. Wagner studied Alzheimer’s disease; other interns devised investigations emerging from questions about disorders and diseases such as autism, breast cancer, and diabetes.

“We give them the opportunity to pursue independent learning,” said Candice Nulsen, director of education and outreach at TGen, in the Republic.

Samantha Enriquez, a senior at Phoenix Union Bioscience High School, said that her research on gene mutations involved in type 2 diabetes gave her clarity about her professional goals in science.

“I just encourage anyone who is interested to look through this option,” she said in the Republic. “It’s a great way to learn more about yourself, learn more about the field. Just be ready to learn.”

High School Student Research Volunteer Program, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center

One of the most rigorously competitive and demanding internship programs in Arizona (and one of the only programs that runs year-round) is the High School Student Research Volunteer Program at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.  From a large pool of students nominated by high schools across metropolitan Phoenix, between six and 10 students are selected to join the program; since it was launched in 1990, the program has involved 156 students.

During the academic year, participants work in laboratories at St. Joseph’s two afternoons each week, and during the summer, four full days per week. With some students remaining in the program for two or three years, it typically maintains enrollment of 12 to 15 students.

A second component in St. Joseph’s Scientific Enrichment Program for Students is its Undergraduate Student Research Program, a full-time summer program that places participants as research assistants under the supervision of staff scientists at St. Joseph’s. In some cases, students in the summer program are invited to continue their research during the academic year.

KEYS Research Internship Program, University of Arizona

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Matt Kaplan of the University of Arizona, in the Arizona Daily Star. “It’s an opportunity for high school students to see what it’s like to really be a scientist.”

Kaplan manages UA’s Human Origins Genotyping Laboratory, one of 18 labs at UA in Tucson that hosted students this summer as part of the Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) Research Internship program, jointly presented by the BIO5 Institute and the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center.

A cohort of 21 students–either still in high school or just-graduated–were selected from among 58 applicants for six- and eight-week internships. After a week-long preparatory training program, the KEYS interns worked 30 to 40 hours per week, then concluded the program by presenting research results at a poster session at the BIO5 Institute.

Kersten Linsangen spent her internship at the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center, in the laboratory of the center’s director, Serrine Lau.

“Science isn’t just a grade anymore,” said Linsangan, now entering her senior year at Sunnyside High School, in the Daily Star. “It’s fun.”

Dr. Lau said that sparking interest in high-school students is critical to the long-term health of the biosciences economic sector.

“High school is where the pipeline begins,” she explained in the Daily Star.

Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance Research Program, University of Arizona

At the UA College of Medicine, pairing disadvantaged high-school students with accomplished biomedical researchers has been a successful approach for more than twenty years.

This year, the Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance (SIMI) Research Program for High School Students brought 17 students to UA to work under top faculty members in pediatrics, pathology, surgery, pharmacology, and family medicine.

“Questions are the starting point and continuation of all learning and discovery, and skilled questioners are needed to expand our horizons,” said Marlys Witte, the program’s director and a professor of surgery at the UA College of Medicine. “The SIMI program uses the insights and techniques of medical ignorance–unanswered questions and unquestioned answers–to improve science education and health literacy.”

Students in the program, funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Science Education Partnership Award, primarily come from financially, socially or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. Among the 467 students who have participated in the program since it was launched in 1987 are 34 current or graduated medical school students, and many more who have pursued careers elsewhere in the sciences.

Students in this year’s program represented 10 high schools in Douglas, Marana, Mesa, Patagonia, Sells, Tucson, and Vail.

Sun Health Research Institute Summer Internship Program, Banner Health

Just 16 students were selected from a pool of 150 high-school and undergraduate applicants for the eight-week summer internship at Banner Sun Health Research Institute (SHRI) in Sun City.

“My experiences in this internship have been extremely valuable as I firm up my career goals,” said Jane Kruchowsky, an undergraduate studying life sciences and psychology at ASU’s West campus. For her internship, Kruchowsky studied adult progenitor cells, involved in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

“The study results have the potential to make changes in people’s quality of life,” Kruchowsky said. “My work pulled together the things I learned in genetics, cell biology, and physiological psychology into real life experience with relevance to the medical field.”

The Sun Health Internship program is explicitly intended to strengthen the biosciences sector, and nearly all participants in the program over its 10-year history have pursued undergraduate studies in the sciences, said Brian Browne, SHRI’s director of communications and education.

“The SHRI Summer Internship Program creates a direct pipeline to nurture the next generation of high-caliber individuals to fulfill the growing need of the nation’s and Arizona’s medical and bioscience industries,” Browne said. “The hands-on nature of the program and its access to world-class research coupled with individual mentorship by some of the greatest research minds is an opportunity of a lifetime for these students.”

“The coolest part has been looking at the brain tissue,” said Asmit Sanghera, a senior Phoenix Country Day School in Paradise Valley, in the Arizona Republic. Sanghera conducted her internship in the lab of SHRI senior scientist Cheri Lubahn, a specialist in nervous-system disorders who directs the Robert J. Hoover Center for Arthritis Research.

“I was so amazed by the entire process,” Sanghera said in the Republic.

For more information:

Flickr Slideshow: Summer 2009 Bioscience Internships

Sun Health Research Institute inspires ASU student intern,” ASU news release, 08/04/2009

On the job at TGen,” Arizona Republic, 08/02/2009

Banner Institute interns dive into DNA research,” Arizona Republic, 07/27/2009

Research internship gives students a chance to help discover solutions,” ASU news release, 07/22/2009

Arizona High School Students Learn to Question Medical Knowledge,” UA news release, 07/21/2009

Youths plunge into serious study of DNA at advanced UA laboratory,” Arizona Daily Star, 07/07/2009