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High School Scientists

More students are doing research in Hopkins labs.

February 2010 -- On a recent Friday evening, when many high school students were relaxing or heading out to a party, 16-year-old Jimmy Fulwiler took a seat in a Broadway Research Building conference room and began delivering a presentation titled “Effect of Cadmium on Cerebellar External Granular Cell Migration in Mice.”

His audience included associate professor Kathy Gabrielson and the dozen researchers who work in her lab in the Department of Molecular and Comparative Pathobiology. Since last spring, the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute junior has spent his after-school hours and school vacations learning research techniques under the tutelage of these scientists and conducting his own research project.

A generation ago, few students had the chance to do lab work before graduate school or, at the earliest, college. In the past decade or two, however, such opportunities have proliferated. Fulwiler connected with Gabrielson’s lab through the Ingenuity Project, a Baltimore-based accelerated math and science program that arranges 15-month research practicums in Hopkins labs for its students.

Other programs that place high school students in Hopkins labs include the Department of Neurology’s Internship in Brain Sciences for underrepresented minority students and the Center Scholars Program, which steers students to labs working in genomics. And some students simply find a lab through an Internet search or family connection.

Such experiences offer students some obvious benefits, not the least of which is the chance to have a genuine hands-on research experience not offered in most high schools. This helps them decide whether they love research or hate it. “It’s seeing science in action,” Fulwiler says. “I like that I have a lot of input on the whole thing and that I’m a big factor in the research.”

Fulwiler spent the first few months in Gabrielson’s lab learning to perform basic techniques, such as necropsies on mice and cell culture. Gabrielson then assigned him to the cadmium project, working closely with postdoc Polina Sysa. Several studies have linked cadmium exposure to the childhood brain cancer medulloblastoma; Fulwiler’s project was designed to test whether cadmium might interfere with the migration of neurons that normally occurs during brain development and thus contribute to the formation of precursor cells for medulloblastoma.

“Our hypothesis was that cadmium would stop it or mess with it—slow it down a little bit,” says Fulwiler. His preliminary results, the focus of his Friday presentation, support the hypothesis, although further studies are required to elaborate on those findings.
In other Hopkins labs, high school students have worked on a variety of projects. In the lab of biochemist Michael Matunis, a sophomore is involved in a study designed to determine whether a protein called SUMO protects other proteins from stress. A student working with biomedical engineer Joel Bader helped to write a software program for matching small molecule drugs with potential clinical targets.

The range of what high school students reap from their lab experience varies. Some learn basic lab techniques; others go farther and contribute to the development of hypotheses and the design of experiments. A few get their names on journal articles.
But what does Hopkins gain from such programs?

For Gabrielson, who has mentored eight high school students in the past eight years, it’s a chance to give back. When she was in college, she spent her vacations volunteering in a veterinary clinic, working in the lab and helping care for sick animals. That experience, says Gabrielson, “changed my life,” and steered her to vet school and medical research.

She now runs her research lab and trains postdocs in animal medicine and veterinary pathology, and accepts as many young people into her lab as she can accommodate. “I feel like other people did it for me. So I should do it for others,” she asserts.
Gabrielson and others who have mentored high school students say it’s gratifying to see a protege share their own scientific interests and passions. “They’re energetic and excited about things,” says Gabrielson. “They can ask questions that make you think about a problem in a different way. It helps you become better at teaching. It’s real rewarding if you can explain something and see that they get it.”

But it can be challenging, too, says Bader, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering who has mentored several high school students. “It’s not about teaching someone to do a homework problem that has known answers. Doing science is like solving a puzzle,” he says. “You have to have initiative and keep trying. If you get stuck, you need to find the resources that will help you get unstuck.”

And helping younger students think through scientific puzzles is a skill that graduate students and postdocs need to cultivate, notes Matunis, an associate professor in cell biology. “You could spend your whole graduate career not mentoring,” he says. “But it’s really important to get that experience. Some of the most important skills we need as academic researchers are teaching, mentorship and leadership.”

However, those abilities don’t always come naturally. Matunis says that he himself has learned some things about mentoring by having a high school student in his lab. He has learned that with young students, it is especially important to help them develop self-confidence and esteem. To do this, he has made a point of gently encouraging his students to discuss their research results and ideas with him and others in the lab. “I try to convince my students that we all have things to learn from each other,” he says.

 –Melissa Hendricks

Below is a partial list of organizations offering high school students research opportunities in Johns Hopkins labs:

The Center Scholars Program—Funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute in an effort to increase minority presence in the genome sciences at the Ph.D. level. Contact Vicky Schneider.

The Johns Hopkins Internship in Brain Sciences Program—Sponsored by the Department of Neurology for underrepresented minority students. Contact Amanda Brown.

The Ingenuity Project—An accelerated math and science program for Baltimore City middle and high school students. Details: 410-662-8665.