Department of Molecular Pharmacology

Einstein and Montefiore Make Science Exciting for Young High Schools Students

Monday, August 29, 2011

For five weeks this summer, the sophomores and juniors participating in the Montefiore-Einstein Summer High School Research Program purified DNA samples, cultured bacteria, analyzed experimental data and “did science” side-by-side with Einstein and Montefiore investigators.

Clearly, this is not your typical high-school biology or chemistry class.

But that’s the point, according to Dr. Victoria Freedman, associate dean for graduate programs in the biomedical sciences, who created and directs the program with Dr. Amy Fox, director of virology and point-of-care testing at Montefiore Medical Center. “Why is it that so few young people are interested in science?” she asked. “Because the excitement, the exhilaration of solving a puzzle, is missing. We wanted to introduce high school students to this excitement.”

Supported by an educational grant from Siemens Corporation, the program assigns each student to an Einstein or Montefiore lab, under the mentorship of the lab director or principal investigator. Students work full-time as a member of the lab team, exploring areas such as pharmacology, immunology and genetics. The students also attend faculty lectures and take field trips. This summer, the trips included visiting a Siemens Healthcare facility and meeting with members of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Chosen through a competitive application process, the first crop of young researchers came from schools including Bronx High School of Science, Preston High School, and ELLIS Preparatory Academy. (ELLIS students, who all are recent immigrants, participated through funding from the American Chemical Society.) The students must now serve as “research ambassadors,” sharing their experience and creating a science activity in their schools – such as a guest lecture – with the help of a small honorarium.

“In addition to supporting budding young scientists, the research program is a way of giving back to the community,” said Dr. Fox, who also is associate professor of pathology and of clinical pediatrics at Montefiore, Einstein’s University Hospital and Academic Center. “These students either come from or go to school in the Bronx. This is Montefiore’s community.”

The giving extends to the impact students themselves may someday have. “The research opened my eyes to the way science can improve the lives of others,” said Ayonnah Bright, from Bronx Academy of Health Careers. She spent her five weeks working in the lab of Dr. John Chan, doing work that someday may lead to a vaccine for tuberculosis. “For me, this was a chance to really see how hard people in science work, and how passionate they are about helping people with illness.

“To step into the scientific world, to help discover answers to things that were unanswered – it has just been fabulous. The program has been one of the best choices I’ve made.”

For ELLIS student Sanusi Kamara, the research program is a first step toward his goal of bringing better healthcare to Guinea, where he lived before moving to the South Bronx in 2008. Sanusi had seen the Guinean population decimated by disease.

Along with another ELLIS student, Bankale Diane, Sanusi worked in the molecular pharmacology lab of Dr. Lloyd Fricker. Sanusi analyzed mass spectrometry data about the effect of a proteasome inhibitor (a drug that blocks the action of the cellular growth. “I am interested in pursuing a professional career in pharmacy, and this program made me more interested in the research and development of new drugs,” Sanusi said. “This fits with my dream of helping my homeland.”

Beside benefiting the students, the research program also can benefit Einstein, Dr. Fricker noted. While it requires time to orient and guide the young researchers, the result in this case was a net gain in productivity for the lab. In addition, he said working with Sanusi and Bankale provided other lab team members valuable experience of their own in mentoring.

But the most important benefits go far beyond a single lab. “Solving scientific problems is best done by people with different perspectives and different backgrounds. So it’s important to bring in the entire community to science, to build diversity,” Dr. Fricker said.

The program’s real-world approach to science also encourages the high school students to think critically and form judgments based on fact, according to Dr. Fricker – important skills regardless of the professions the students choose. “Training in science isn’t just for scientists,” he said.

Ultimately, the greatest benefit may be the excitement about learning that spreads from mentors to students. “The program fosters a love of science in a way that is very different from what high schools can do,” said Dr. Fox. “You have to be passionate about this work, and we’ve recognized this in our colleagues as well. This program exposes students to other scientists and provides the first step in thiss journey.”

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