NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

'Like Sponges'

Internship Program Benefits High School Students

Dr. Brooks and youngster at microscope
Dr. Steven Brooks (l), postdoctoral fellow, NHLBI and Pamela Aluvale of HiSTEP

Photo:  Marleen Van Den Neste

This summer, 25 of NIH’s youngest interns spent 6 weeks exploring their dreams in science and preparing for their future under the guidance of the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE). The interns, all rising high school seniors, were part of the third annual HiSTEP (High School Scientific Training and Enrichment Program), which invites students from financially disadvantaged local public schools to experience science in both classroom and laboratory settings while also receiving college advice and mentoring.

One of the program’s activities was a networking session on July 25, where each student was assigned three NIH professionals, including investigators, program directors, science administrators and other experts. The event took on a speed-dating style, with students speaking to each professional for 30 minutes then rotating on to the next mentor. The students also visited different labs throughout the week, donning colorful lab coats and joining researchers in their day-to-day routines.

“Dr. Meredith Fox [of NIMH’s Office of Science Policy, Planning and Communications] told me, whenever you’re given an opportunity, never to let go. Take them because you never know where they’ll take you,” said HiSTEP participant Stephany Carrasco. “The experience is giving me a broader view of what science really is. I never knew there were so many different jobs in science, it’s incredible.”

Students and staff in the lab
In the physiology section of NHLBI’s Sickle Cell Branch are (from l) Aluvale; Brooks; Kathleen Dang; Majed Almashjary, Ph.D candidate, NIH GPP program with Catholic University; Dr. Yu Yang, biologist, NHLBI; Kavisha Chandrawarakkalage; Nathan Phillips; Olamide Alabi; Dr. Hans Ackerman, principal investigator, NHLBI; Dr. Dongying Ma, research fellow, NHLBI; and Carlos Carhuas, NIH summer student, University of Maryland.

Photo:  Credit Marleen Van Den Neste

“We email researchers about participating in the informational interviews and they volunteer their time,” said Dr. Sharolyn Kawakami-Schulz, one of the directors of HiSTEP. “Within the NIH community, we know that training is important. There are many people who have benefited from mentorship and training who are very willing to give back.” 

Nathan Phillips, a rising senior at James Hubert Blake High School, took the advice he received to think about creative career options for his interest in sports medicine and kinesiology.
“I want to go into sports medicine, but I also want to do TV production and combine the two and make a show where they talk about different athletes and how they got through their injuries,” he said.

Along with introducing students to numerous opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, HiSTEP teaches them how to apply for college and interact with experts who might be able to help them.

A meeting of NIH’ers and the HiSTEP group
Jarrett Jackson (front, r), post-baccalaureate fellow, NHLBI Sickle Cell Branch, joins a meeting of NIH’ers and the HiSTEP group.

Photo:  Credit Marleen Van Den Neste

Dr. Kristen Zukosky, who advises HiSTEP students on researching and applying to college, said the application process could be especially overwhelming for students whose high schools or families did not have the resources or knowledge to weigh a diversity of college options. Zukosky has been helping students think about what to look for in a college experience, allowing them to navigate the characteristics of each school without paying sole attention to school rankings.
“I’m constantly impressed by their thirst for knowledge and their passion and devotion for STEM fields,” Zukosky said. “They’re like sponges the whole 6 weeks.”

“I thought the program was just going to be about science, science, science,” said Tooba Malik, a rising senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. “But they have lectures on how to have informational interviews, how to write good emails, basic communications skills that I kind of didn’t know about. My emails are way better than I used to write them.” 

'Cool' Factor a Bonus

Explore with NIH's 3-D Print Exchange

McCarthy holds a model brain.
Dr. Meghan McCarthy holds a model brain produced by the 3-D Print Exchange.

Photo:  Carla Garnett

In 2007, Dr. Darrell Hurt, head of the computational biology section in NIAID’s Bioinformatics and Computational Biosciences Branch (BCBB), began experimenting with 3-D printing for molecular visualization. He started by taking raw molecular structure data and putting it in a 3-D-printable form.

“There’s so much more you can learn when you have it in your hands, rather than looking at it on a 2-D screen or even with 3-D glasses,” explains Dr. Meghan McCarthy, program lead for BCBB’s 3-D Printing and Biovisualization Program.

BCBB provides data analysis consultation and custom software development services to NIAID researchers and wanted to make 3-D printing more accessible to the public. As a solution, the branch created the NIH 3-D Print Exchange (, an online resource where people can find models and share their own models as well as web tools that eliminate skills barriers.

“We developed automated tools that are free. Anyone around the globe can use them,” says McCarthy, who manages the exchange under BCBB’s larger program for 3-D printing and biovisualization.

The exchange is owned and maintained by NIAID, but was initially created in partnership with NICHD and the National Library of Medicine with support from the 2013 HHS Ignite and 2014 HHS Ventures initiatives. Team members were recognized with an HHS Innovates award in 2015.

BCBB has processed more than 100 scientific 3-D printing requests over the last 10 years, reports BCBB Scientific Visualization Specialist James Tyrwhitt-Drake. “However, each request may include multiple different models or copies of the same model,” he says.

A colorful variety of 3-D models

“Color printing of scientific models requires a considerable amount of preparation and processing time, so we primarily limit the service to requests from NIAID staff that have scientific utility. Production is limited by the physical complexity of the model, consumption of materials and occasionally troubleshooting mechanical or software issues with the printer.”

Over the years, as technology advanced, BCBB’s capabilities and responsibilities expanded to include other 3-D technologies, including virtual and augmented reality.

Tyrwhitt-Drake, along with team member and structural biologist Dr. Phil Cruz, also produces the virtual reality models that allow investigators to walk inside a molecule and have a look around its structure. 

Use of virtual reality has “really taken off, especially in the last year,” McCarthy points out. “Anyone that we’ve ever put into the 3-D goggles—even people who have worked on a particular molecule for 10 or 15 years as part of their career—says they see something different, that they didn’t see before.”

Both 3-D printing and VR are useful applications for learning, sharing and education, as well as research, McCarthy notes. In addition to exploring their work from a unique perspective, researchers also seem to enjoy the “cool” factor.

“Most people think of gaming and entertainment when they think of VR,” McCarthy concludes, “but we really like that we’ve been able to bring this scientific value to it.”

HiSTEP Alumnus Offers Testimony

Hiwot Lema at NIH Summer Poster Day in 2016
Hiwot Lema at NIH Summer Poster Day in 2016

Photo:  Natasha Lugo-Escobar

Hiwot Lema is an alumnus of the first HiSTEP class in 2015. Lema, who has always wanted to be a doctor, first heard about the program through her high school AP biology teacher, who also worked at NIH.

“Coming to NIH and being at a place where you’re manipulating the mechanisms of your body and solving problems really opened my eyes,” Lema said. “I wasn’t just learning what naturally happens. I was learning what doesn’t usually happen and how we’re trying to fix that. It was bringing the books to life, and it really fascinated me.”

Lema completed her HiSTEP program and throughout senior year stayed in touch with program directors Dr. Sharolyn Kawakami-Schulz and Dr. Natasha Lugo-Escobar, who continued to advise her as she applied for colleges. That year, she was accepted to the University of Maryland. 

Lema subsequently returned for a second year at NIH, as part of a program called HiSTEP 2.0. Through version 2.0, OITE prepares students for life in college, giving each youngster an opportunity to work in labs while teaching them about the importance of wellness, time management and stress management on campus.

Lema also met her college roommate at the first HiSTEP.

“I feel like I’ve met a lot of lifelong friends,” she said. “We came from the same backgrounds, and I definitely met a lot of people that I can relate to not only academically but socially as well.”

After spending two rigorous high school summers at NIH, Lema came back for her third year, this time having been selected for the highly competitive NCI summer internship program.
“I really like doing research. I never thought I would. I thought I would be more clinical, but I don’t know, it just opened my life to impact human lives in other ways,” Lema said. “NIH is the medicine of tomorrow, and people come here when they have no other options. It’s very exciting for me.”

The 2017 HiSTEP program concluded Aug. 10, with a Poster Day where students presented the lessons and experiments they found most impressive.

For a video of the HiSTEP program, visit

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