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Students Test-Drive Biomedical Research Careers in Summer Internship Program

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Students Test-Drive Biomedical Research Careers in Summer Internship Program

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Students Test-Drive Biomedical Research Careers in Summer Internship Program

By Rachel Butch

August 2016—If you read the May 19 edition of Cell you may have noticed something unusual: The author affiliations on a paper detailing development of a new “mini-bioreactor” tool for studying Zika include two high schools. Authorship credit in one of science’s most prestigious publications is a vanishingly rare achievement even for undergraduate students: So how did these teenagers do it? The answer, in part, lies in a network of summer programs at Johns Hopkins, the Summer Internship Program (SIP), which offers high school and college students the opportunity to work as biomedical researchers and, if things go very well, publish like them too.

Getting an Early Start

Chris Hadiono, one of the authors of the Cell article, began doing research in his sophomore year at Byram Hills High School in New York. Each year, the school hosts a program where students are encouraged to find an interesting scientific topic, familiarize themselves with current research in that area, and find a researcher to mentor them for the summer while they gain hands-on lab experience.

For his project, Hadiono chose to study the formation of new stem cells in the brain. He contacted Hongjun Song, who directs the Stem Cell Program at Johns Hopkins’ Institute for Cell Engineering, about working in his lab for the summer. In fact, Hadiono had to send two emails and a letter and make a phone call to finally convince Song of his determination and secure himself a spot in the lab.

Chris Hadiono (L) and Jai Thankor (R)
Chris Hadiono (left) and Jai Thakor (right) present the findings from their summer internship in 2014. 

Reaching Out For More

Katherine Wilson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, directs two Summer Internship Programs for college students from all over the United States. She admires the dedication and intensity of students like Hadiono.

“Students are far more aware of the importance of research and are more interested in research opportunities than ever before,” says Wilson.

The summer internship program has more than 1000 applicants each year, from which approximately 100 students from across the country are paired with researchers whose fields of study range from mental health to HIV. Others, like Hadiono, take a special interest in a particular researcher’s work and find their own way to Johns Hopkins. Many summer programs, like the Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP) and the Maximizing Access to Research Careers program, give students from minority or economically disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to gain research experience they may not have access to at their home institutions.

“My lab experience prior to this was very limited,” says HCOP participant Juan Carlos Ramirez, a rising senior premedical student at the University of West Florida. “Mine is a small school with little funding for medical research.”

Ramirez is working with Jeffry Corden, whose lab studies how cells control a protein called RNA Polymerase II. Ramirez investigated how copper ions affect protein folding in brain cells—a process that, when it goes awry, appears to be associated with neurodegenerative disease. 

Ramirez is a veteran who served as a medic in the U.S. Army Special Forces. He committed to pursuing a career in medical research, specifically neurodegenerative disease, after losing a teammate to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He hopes this research experience will set him apart from other candidates when he applies to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s M.D.-Ph.D. program this year. 

Juan Carlos Ramirez and Jonathan Merran
Juan Carlos Ramirez, a senior at the University of West Florida, examines yeast cultures with Postdoctoral Fellow Jonathan Merran. 

Making Connections

The SIP program is designed to prepare students like Ramirez for acceptance into world-class medical and research institutions.

“The workshops and presentations were really helpful,” says Kennedy Goldsborough, a rising junior biochemistry major at Hampton University who, like Ramirez, plans to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. “We had journal clubs to help us practice reading and analyzing data from scientific papers, we met the admissions panel for the med school and graduate programs, and we had a LinkedIn session that helped us customize our profile,” she says.

Goldsborough and other students say it is the opportunity to network with their peers and professionals at Johns Hopkins that sets SIP apart. “I met the director of the Cellular and Molecular Medicine graduate program, and she put me in contact with a few graduate students who are doing the M.D.-Ph.D. program I’m interested in. They told me about the work and the application process, but I think what was most beneficial was that they told me how much they actually like what they’re doing,” she says.

Goldsborough was paired with Joel Blankson, who studies HIV viral replication. The match was perfect for Goldsborough, who wants to study immunology in graduate school. Her project this summer studied so-called HIV latency reversing agents, which reactivate “dormant” HIV viruses so that the immune system can recognize and kill them. “When a virus is in a cell, but not replicating itself, our immune system is effectively blind to its presence and can’t kill it,” she explains.

One of Goldsborough’s favorite memories was working a 14-hour day with her mentor, graduate student Abena Kwaa.

“Part of our protocol is a 6-hour incubation period, so if we don’t get started by noon, I’m going to be here for a long time,” says Goldsborough. That day, after hitting every roadblock possible, she and Kwaa got the incubation process started late. “We were just waiting around when she asked me if I wanted to go to 7-11,” says Goldsborough. “We got Slurpees and food and just ate and talked about life. Most people would be upset about working such a long day, but honestly, that was my favorite experience of the summer.”

Kennedy Goldsborough
Kennedy Goldsborough, a junior at Hampton University, uses a centrifuge to spin down samples.

Coming Prepared

For Chris Hadiono, too, trainees in his lab shaped his summer experience at Johns Hopkins and served as advisors. “The postdoctoral fellows were the ones who showed me the problem with the existing bioreactors,” says Hadiono. “They’re a huge reason the project came to be.”  

Hadiono advises prospective SIP students not to give up. “You have to show persistence if you want researchers to notice you,” he says. “And be flexible. I ended up doing something completely different than what I expected. The bioreactor is more of an engineering project than a biology project, so it was something I wasn’t really familiar with beforehand.”  But the project turned out to be a good fit: Hadiono is now pursuing a degree in electrical engineering at Case Western Reserve University.