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Summer Interns Experience a Taste of Research at Johns Hopkins
September 2010 -- Last month, 160 high school and college students from around the nation convened in the Turner Concourse at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to present their research findings—such as developing new ways to deliver a vaccine or gentler methods to create stem cells from adult body cells—all performed in a little over a 10-week period.
The Summer Internship Program at Johns Hopkins was started 15 years ago to promote underrepresented minorities, who then composed only four percent of applicants to Hopkins programs. The program was later targeted additionally at first-generation college students and students from families with moderate to low incomes. Today, more than 70 percent of students who apply to the summer research program fall within one of these categories.
“Many times interns from our summer program come back to Hopkins for Ph.D.s, medical or master’s degrees,” says Cathy Will, manager of the summer internship basic science division. “This program allows us to draw good candidates, trained here, to our other programs and helps diversify our student population.”
For many of this year’s crop of students, the program was their first opportunity to work in a laboratory environment—experience that may resound throughout their careers.
In choosing to apply to the Hopkins program, many of these students were drawn in by the Johns Hopkins name. Most of them were either majoring in science or were premed, but they were without a clearly defined course of future study—graduate or medical school. However, with the opportunity to work on a research project at a world-renowned institution, some have found new focus.
Kyle Davis, a senior majoring in electronic engineering at North Carolina State University, took his engineering background and melded it with biology this summer when working in the Biomedical Engineering laboratory of Xingde Li. Davis’ project involved trying to coat microscopic gold pellets with antibodies, with the ultimate goal of developing a tool that could be used to deliver drugs to a pinpointed part of the body—organs, tissues, or even specific cells. The pellet could then be tracked by MRI to make sure it gets to where it needs to be. Davis was able to test them to see if they were effective in killing cancer cells. Now that he’s returned to school, the Li lab will continue this work and test the pellets in living tissues. “I really enjoyed my time here and I learned some valuable skills,” says Davis, “like how to keep modifying the conditions in order to get an experiment to work.” He plans to further combine his engineering skills with biology by applying to biomedical engineering programs for graduate school this fall and continuing along the research path.
Obafemi Ifelowo, a senior molecular biology, biochemistry and bioinformatics major at Towson University, wants to be an obstetric doctor, so he can deliver babies. Ifelowo sees laboratory research as an important step in his training. “All good doctors should have some research experience,” he says, “to understand the molecular causes behind medical conditions.” Like Davis, Ifelowo also spent the summer in a biomedical engineering lab. In Jordan Green’s lab, Ifelowo worked with graduate student Nupura Bhuise to make microscopic, biodegradable capsules to deliver DNA into human fibroblast cells to make induced pluripotent stem cells. He tested 2000 different polymer capsules and found six of these that successfully coated the DNA and had low toxicity when delivered into human fibroblasts. The Green lab will continue this project by using the capsules to deliver DNA that can make stem cells. As for Ifelowo, he’s even leaning towards doing clinical research along with medical practice. “In lab I learned that it takes teamwork, devotion and commitment to make a project work,” he says. “My experience at Hopkins has made me confident and ready for whatever challenge the future brings.”
Another student, molecular biology major Jasmine Robertson, came with an interest in DNA and genetics and set out to explore the field in Sean Taverna’s lab in Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences. There she worked with yeast proteins that help keep DNA organized inside the cell. She discovered how certain DNA-organizing proteins interact with other proteins to turn genes on or off—a result of changes in DNA structure and packaging. “Much research requires long hours and all that time spent in lab doesn’t guarantee results,” says Robertson. “I found out what it’s like to work in a lab environment and learned how to do work with cells and proteins,” says the Norfolk State University junior who learned of the program through a friend who did research at Hopkins last summer. “I really got to hone my problem solving skills too.”
For Iesha James, the program was her first opportunity to do work of this variety. She attends a small liberal arts school in Daytona, Fla, Bethune-Cookman University, which doesn’t have any scientific research labs. While in Phil Cole’s lab in Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, James studied a particular form of leukemia that arises when part of chromosome 9 swaps places with part of chromosome 22. Her goal was to try and “undo” the swap. “I liked the research even though I wasn’t able to get the project to work,” says James. She plans to apply for research positions for next summer and to eventually go to medical school to specialize in pediatrics or pediatric surgery. “I want a chance to work on another research project before I decide whether or not to go for an M.D./Ph.D.,” she says.
Wherever their career paths and life decisions may lead them, perhaps we will see some of these students reappear for graduate training at Johns Hopkins.
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