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Curious to Confident: Students Bask in Summer Research Experience
Six students from local under-resourced schools eagerly swapped sunglasses for safety goggles and got to work this summer in some of the most sophisticated research laboratories on campus at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute.
The students navigated real-world research settings, practiced lab skills, explored scientific and medical career options, and met mentors who are dedicated to advancing pediatric medicine, as part of the six-week CHOP Research Internship for Scholars and Emerging Scientists (CHOP-RISES) summer internship. The new program is offered by the Office of Academic Training and Outreach Programs (ATOP) at the Research Institute.
“It’s a unique science camp type of experience for students who are typically under-represented in research,” said Michelle Marshall, instructional designer for ATOP. “We want the participating students to go from being ‘science curious’ to ‘science confident.’”
This year, CHOP partnered with Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, N.J., and Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia to recommend students for CHOP-RISES. Students eligible for the internship demonstrate an interest in science and have a proven record of good academic performance and attendance, yet their schools don’t have the facilities and resources to allow them to fully participate in research experiences during the academic year.
“Our school does the best we can to provide laboratory and science research activities, but funds are limited, laboratory equipment is not always current, and the consumables that are needed every year are at the whim of the shrinking budget,” said Dr. Steven Fine, site manager at Brimm. “In this technological age, it really is impossible for a public school to keep pace with current up to date scientific research. CHOP-RISES has been an exceptional program for our students that closes that educational gap.”
Students may start the program with trepidation, Dr. Fine said, but with the guidance of CHOP faculty and staff, they quickly gain a sense of pride in their abilities to one day succeed as professional scientists. Meeting role models who have a “can do” attitude is especially important for these students, he added, because they may not have mentors in their families and communities who are familiar with STEM-M (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine) professions.
The career exposure and visiting different parts of the Research Institute campus is what Maia Cone, a 16-year-old senior at Brimm this fall, enjoyed the most about her time as a CHOP-RISES student. Her ambition is to become an orthopaedic surgeon, and she met with an orthopaedic biomedical researcher who is studying a mouse model of tumor formation in bones and devising therapies.
“We took little X-rays of the mouse, and I’d never seen an X-ray machine so small,” Cone said. “I took part in actually cropping the images for a lab meeting presentation. That was pretty cool.”
Cone also worked in the lab of Matthew Weitzman, PhD, who studies the molecular relationships between viral infection and cellular DNA damage response pathways. Cone learned the basics of cell culture, and she worked on a cloning project where she successfully mutated one of the host proteins targeted by adenovirus during infection, in order to help identify its role in the viral life cycle.
Other CHOP-RISES students put their science skills to the test in the labs of principal investigators Ian Krantz, MD, who studies genomics related to Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, and Gordon Barr, PhD, who takes an early developmental perspective of the mechanisms of stress, pain, and recovery from damage to the nervous system.
Dr. Barr, who also is on the CHOP-RISES advisory committee, said the students learned firsthand about the day-to-day duties of running a scientific laboratory. In his lab, they prepared and stained samples, made solutions, and recorded measurements. The interaction with his staff also gave them a valuable perspective about the enthusiastic investigators who contribute in big and small ways to reach scientific breakthroughs.
“They get to meet people who are at fairly high levels in their careers at CHOP,” Dr. Barr said, “from listening to lectures, to meeting with their post-doc mentors, to working side-by-side with their lab supervisors. If you are a student who hasn’t met a physician-scientist before, you might think of them as very different than who you are. So it’s important for them to know that they are regular people who you can sit down with and discuss — even disagree — about things over lunch.”
Cone was happy to discover that the scientists she worked with were “pretty chill. We could talk, joke, and laugh. It was a welcoming feeling, not just getting down to business and work. I liked that we got to know people and connect.”
The students’ enthusiasm for learning extended beyond the laboratories’ walls. They met with diverse postdoctoral fellow who shared their college stories and helped the students to develop their own academic goals. They toured the Center for Autism Research, spent a few hours with the Emergency Department’s clinical care team, became certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and visited the Mutter Museum.
With careful planning, Jodi Ann Leckrone, associate director of ATOP, and her staff packed all of these experiences — along with college-prep activities, critical thinking exercises, and even time for self-reflection — into the students’ 30-hour-a-week, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule.
“We wanted them to gain exposure to a range of scientific and healthcare careers by meeting with different clinical teams to see how their work directly relates to improving child health and wellness,” Leckrone said.
For Avaunte Walker, 17, who is beginning his senior year of high school at Paul Robeson and wants to enter the medical field, participating in the summer program gave him the chance to “explore and learn something new every day,” he said. “Seeing all the behind-the-scenes work that people do in a lab is amazing.”
Walker’s CHOP-RISES experience took a fun turn when the program’s coordinators heard about his interest in NASCAR driving. They arranged for him to visit the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP), a Center of Emphasis at the Research Institute, and try out the driving simulator that is a unique tool to help answer research questions in the age of distracted driving and autonomous vehicles. Walker also spent a day shadowing a CIRP investigator who studies safety features of automobiles.
With September not far around the corner, CHOP-RISES students will have many memorable moments like these to share when their friends ask, “What did you do over the summer?” As they describe their summer research experience, they will reinforce what they learned and get their peers interested and excited to follow in their footsteps.
“My expectation is that the students who have participated in CHOP-RISES will be able to educate and mentor other students in the research process and continue to do more scientific research while in high school and beyond,” Dr. Fine said.