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Student Researchers' Talent, Enthusiasm Impress Senior Scientists

They didn't sound like high school students. They sounded more like senior research scientists presenting at a national meeting rather than 62 sophomores, juniors and seniors reporting the results of their summer research projects at this year's National High School Student Summer Research Apprentice Program in Bethesda.

Jesus Hernandez Burgos presented his work on cell protective heat shock proteins; Catherine Cushenberry reported on her study of a possible "control point" in the development of sickle cell anemia; and Adam Gomez and Paul Maliakkal presented their work on the role of bone morphogenic protein (BMP-4) in the development of digits, and how this protein may contribute to our understanding of the genetics of birth defects.

The four were vying with each other for recognition from a panel of scientists from NIDDK and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine, cosponsors of the summer program.

Jesus Hernandez Burgos (r) is congratulated here by Dr. Sanford Garfield of NIDDK.

Top honors went to Hernandez Burgos. It wasn't his first recognition. The 18-year-old senior from Carmen Belen Veiga High School in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, has taken top honors at his hometown science fair every year since third grade. He studied the practical uses of the aloe plant for 8 years. "I got the idea from my grandmother, who used the aloe for medicinal purposes," says the enthusiastic senior. "I decided to work on its domestic uses." Working in a University of Puerto Rico lab with information provided by the Aloe Corp. of Texas, he developed an aloe-based detergent in third grade, followed by an insecticide, a glass cleaner, a tire cleaner and a glue. He did his most recent work on heat shock proteins at Ponce School of Medicine in Puerto Rico, under NIH investigator Jose Torres-Ruiz.

"The program is designed to expose these kids to investigative methods," says Dr. Larry Agodoa, director of NIDDK's Office of Minority Health Research Coordination. He founded the program 9 years ago for minority students (Hispanic/Latino, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders, and Alaskan Natives) interested in biomedical research. Each student is paired with a mentor, who supervises the student in his or her lab for 8 weeks. Student projects culminate with their presentations in Bethesda. NIDDK funds and oversees the program; Dr. Keith Norris and Emma Taylor of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine coordinated day-to-day activities for this year's students.

They came from 14 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Their assignment: to identify a specific clinical problem, to generate a hypothesis and develop a way to test that hypothesis and interpret the results.

For his heat shock protein study, Hernandez Burgos grew E. coli bacteria cells in culture and heated them up with hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet radiation. He then quantified the amount of heat shock proteins generated at 15, 30, 45 and 60 minutes, confirming their protective role in absorbing the stress of exposure to either hydrogen peroxide or ultraviolet radiation. It was an impressive piece of work. "It's even more impressive when they are out there presenting their research," says Agodoa. "The enthusiasm and the control and the ownership they have of these projects are just amazing."

Dr. Keith Norris of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine (rear) meets aspiring scientists honored for their high-quality work; they are (from l) Adam Gomez, Paul Maliakkal, Hernandez Burgos and Catherine Cushenberry.

Washington D.C.'s Cushenberry, who took second-place honors, studied blood levels of 2,3 diphosphoglyceric acid (2,3-DPG) in samples collected from adult volunteers at the Howard University Sickle Cell Center and the surrounding community. Excessively high levels of 2,3-DPG, a natural regulator of hemoglobin oxygen binding, promotes sickling of red blood cells. Her analysis identified pyruvate, a natural product of the body's metabolic pathway, as a possible "control point" for 2,3-DPG biosynthesis, which may eventually provide a new means of regulating 2,3-DPG and treating the disease.

Gomez and Maliakkal, both from Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions in Houston, used a labeled probe to light up growing concentrations of BMP-4, a protein involved in the separation of digits during fetal development — in this case, mice. "We learned that BMP-4 plays an important role in the development of digits and the expression of facial features," says Maliakkal, who will graduate this coming June. He wants to be a doctor. "This was my first opportunity to work in an actual laboratory; I got to see where all our medical practice is rooted."

He may still be a high school student, but he's well on his way to a medical career.

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