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Summer Program Is Incubator for Young Scientists

By Anna Gillis

Clifford Pierre proposes to make the medicines, and he says, "Dr. McHugh will provide the patients." This plan, hatched during a tour of Dr. Constantine Londos's lab in Bldg. 50, won't come to fruition for more than a decade. But the young men are thinking ahead and making connections.

In August, Pierre, Joshua McHugh, and 47 other high schoolers came to NIH from as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico to present findings gathered during their 8- week summer stints in university labs. They were part of the NIH-Charles Drew University of Medicine and Sciences National High School Student Summer Research Program, which aims to eventually increase the number of ethnic minorities involved in biomedical research. "But students who may be disadvantaged in other ways — either by background or geography — are admitted to the program," says Dr. Keith Norris, a principal investigator at Drew, who just finished his first year coordinating the program for NIH.

Clifford Pierre

The program has its roots in the NIH-Howard University Minority High School Student Summer Research Program begun in 1995 at the instigation of Dr. John Ruffin, now director of NIH's National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The goal is to give the students "a meaningful exposure to scientific research," says Dr. Lawrence Agodoa, director of the Office of Minority Health Research Coordination for NIDDK, which co-funds the program with NCMHD. Once matched with a research mentor, the students work on their own projects and then present the findings to their peers in the fashion expected among scientists.

Norris sees the program as "an opportunity for the students to find out if they enjoy and have a passion for biomedical sciences." While it takes more patience to work with high school students than with medical students and postdocs, "it is more gratifying in many ways because you are helping them determine what it is they like to do, want to do, and have an aptitude to do. In most instances, the older students have already made their decisions."

Norris and Agodoa found the students inquisitive and highly motivated, characteristics that clearly showed in their presentations. They tackled a wide array of topics ranging from kidney function and cardiovascular risk factors in people at risk for kidney disease, to the inhibitory effects of plant extracts on microorganisms, to social risk factors that influence the well-being of low birth weight babies, to chemical changes in polymers.

Dr. Keith Norris (l) of Charles Drew University and Dr. Lawrence Agodoa of NIDDK flank young scholar Joshua McHugh.

In his first scientific talk (which received an Award of Excellence), Lenoy Galvez challenged doctors to look at changing death patterns among AIDS patients who had been on the HAART (highly active anti-retroviral therapy) protocol. Galvez, who just finished his senior year at Miami Northwestern High School in Florida, says his mentor, Dr. Ishmael Sharpe, asked him what he was interested in, then guided him to Miami's VA Medical Center. There, Galvez began asking, "Are there negative changes associated with HAART?" He studied reported causes of death in 1995 among AIDS patients who had not gone through HAART, and deaths in 1999 among patients who had received the comprehensive treatment. The positive result was that, in 1999, there were only 35 deaths compared to 153 in 1995, says Galvez. But the breakdown by cause of death showed significant shifts with HAART. "I never thought I'd have such a finding," adds Galvez.

Lenoy Galvez

He has been interested in science since he was 4, when he remembers asking his mother about the pyramids. "My mom encourages me to learn by myself, and she doesn't help me with my homework." He plans to major in biology and psychology at the University of South Florida, and thinks he wants to be a neuroscientist so that he can "find the connection between mind, body and spirit."

And what has been his greatest challenge? Learning English, says Galvez, who was 12 when he and his physician mother arrived from Cuba. "The first 3 years of English were hard."

Brian Beuttner's challenge was "learning math on my own." The only program participant ever from Oklahoma, he was home-schooled. He heard about the program by chance: "I was in chemistry class 3 years ago when my mother's friend, who is a librarian, told me about it. I was lifted onto cloud 9 when I got the call that I was accepted. More people should know about [the program]," he says.

Brian Beuttner

This summer, his third year in the program, Beuttner studied pitch discrimination at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center, and he received an Award of Excellence for his poster. In previous years, he studied lupus and acupuncture. One of the best things about the program is, "I now have friends from Puerto Rico to Hawaii. Next summer I'll visit Hawaii," says Beuttner. He's not sure what he'll study at the University of Oklahoma where he has a scholarship. "I think I want to do business and dentistry."

Joshua McHugh, who will be a senior at Nazareth Regional High School in Brooklyn, spent his summer analyzing the flexibility of red blood cells from diabetic and non-diabetic patients with nephropathy. He has known since he was 6 that he wants to be a doctor, but this summer's experience clinched it. "Last year, I was just in the lab," says McHugh. "This year, I enjoyed talking to patients, even though it was kind of overwhelming."

On tour, his predilection for physiology was clear. When he learned that the lab bred mice that had reduced levels of fat, but weighed the same as control mice, he wanted to know the reason why. NIDDK's Dr. John Tansey, who led the tour, said the lab was just as curious. Meanwhile, Clifford Pierre's leaning toward chemistry was apparent. While other students were interested in the movements of a clump-forming amoeba, he wanted to know how it used cyclic AMP.

Pierre, who just finished his senior year at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, had been considering a career in environmental chemistry. This summer, he shifted direction when he studied how changing concentrations of ethyl alcohol in polymer gels would alter how they responded to changes in temperature. "Knowing how polymers work would be useful for drug delivery," he says.

Melissa Fletcher
Melissa Fletcher begins her journey toward becoming a doctor this fall when she starts the 6-year B.S. M.D. program at Howard University. While she's studying, she plans to continue working with her mentor, Dr. Kunle Kassim, a researcher at Howard. This summer, the group she worked with evaluated extracts of three plants from West Africa and found that one demonstrated antihemolytic properties against Staphylococcus aureus. The only hard part of the program, Fletcher says, "was not being able to sleep the night before the presentation" because she was still working on slides. She remained as unflappable as a veteran scientist when asked whether she knew yet what the compound was. "If I don't know, I'm not going to just make something up," she says.

Kassim, who has mentored young students for many years, says Fletcher has a natural inclination for research. "I don't have to spell out for her exactly what she has to do, and she has patience." He believes that mentors have to give the young people a realistic view of life in science: "There isn't any glamour, and there's a lot of tedium."

To the students, everything about NIH was marvelous. Awed by the price of a confocal scanning microscope, several of them had to take pictures of it. They played with the Morse code exhibit at the National Library of Medicine and spent time with other students who are just like them. Roberto Gonzalez from Tomas Armstrong Toro High School in Puerto Rico spoke for many when he said that he "was proud just to be invited. They must think well of us to pay for us to come to the program."

NIDDK's Agodoa does think well of them. In fact, he's quite proud of them, and he likes when they keep in touch after going to college. "It's been a great joy to see them progress."

A small group of students that included Pierre and McHugh did receive one admonition from NLM's David Nash, who held their rapt attention — possibly because he was once a Harlem Globetrotter. Nash, who is now EEO manager for the library, told them that "No matter how great you are, remember to serve."

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