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Vol. LVIII, No. 13
June 30, 2006

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NIH High School Protégés Honored

Hearing presentations by young men and women at the recent Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Montgomery County Public Schools dinner symposium, you might have had to remind yourself that these were high school students, not NIH postdocs or seasoned research fellows. That's because they are among the area's brightest science scholars. Many attendees marveled at how well the students were able to explain their state-of-the-art research and to field wide-ranging questions. The event was the venue for students to showcase the knowledge and skills they gained through doing research in NIH laboratories as part of the Student and Teacher Internship Program (STIP).

Partnering organizational leaders pause for a photo at the dinner symposium. They are (from l) Dr. Bruce Fuchs, director, NIH Office of Science Education; Sandra Shmookler, STIP director, MCPS; Gloria Seelman, master teacher and OSE STIP coordinator; and Dr. Peter Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs, HHMI.

The program is funded by an HHMI grant to the MCPS system, which pairs area high school students and teachers with NIH mentoring scientists. Interns first complete a basic molecular biology course and then work in NIH labs for 7 to 8 weeks in the summer. During the school year, students go to their normal classrooms in the morning and spend their afternoons in the lab for up to 20 hours per week.

The "key [to the program's success] is the mentored research," said Dr. Peter Bruns, HHMI vice president for grants and special programs. "It is clear to me that many of the students gained a real sense of ownership in their projects. Students were on top of the science behind the projects and understood the goals of their experiments." Gloria Seelman, STIP coordinator in the NIH Office of Science Education, credits the students with the program's success. The "students are motivated and choose to be in the program knowing how much work it will take," she said.

Interns and friends socialize before science presentations begin. They are (from l) Thoi Ngo (Walter Johnson High School), Christopher Hill (John F. Kennedy High School), César Baëta (Wheaton High School), Dipankar Dutta (Paint Branch High School) and Belachew Telahun (Wheaton High School).  

The dinner was held on the HHMI campus to honor this year's interns, 22 students and 11 teachers. Those who arrived early took advantage of the terrace views and garden setting to snap photographs with friends and family. Following the welcoming reception, students split into several conference rooms to give 15-minute PowerPoint presentations and answer questions from the audience. Each mini-symposium was led by a program scientist-advisor. After dinner, people gathered in the auditorium for a graduation-like ceremony where interns were called one by one to receive a certificate. Long-time volunteer scientists and others were also honored.

Under the guidance of senior scientists, interns contributed to an array of basic science and clinical research projects at NIH. Most came away with more than new lab skills. In the NIMH Molecular Imaging Branch, César Baëta worked on a project to develop radiotracers for use in positron emission tomography (PET) imaging of brain lesions associated with Alzheimer's disease. "I have a new perspective in chemistry that I hadn't seen before," he said.

Intern Dipankar Dutta says he "wasn't sure what to major in and was considering engineering" when he first came to work in an NICHD laboratory. His project involved understanding how microtubules (tubular structural units in the cell) remain stable in destabilizing environments. Since completing the internship, Dutta has decided to major in biochemistry and biomedical engineering at the University of Maryland.

Interns gather at the reception. They include (from l) Everis Clarke Jr. (Walter Johnson High School), Grace Han (Thomas S. Wootton High School) and Namisha Dhillon (Northwest High School).  

The experience "taught me to deal with time management," observed Thoi Ngo, who worked in the Laboratory of Gene Regulation and Development, NICHD. His project centered on the interaction between ribosomes (the cell's protein-assembly units) and factors that initiate protein synthesis. Results could translate into new therapies for illnesses caused by problems in protein synthesis.

"It was phenomenal to experience the world of science and the people in it," noted Belachew Telahun, who worked in the section on molecular virology, NIMH. His project focused on identifying regions of the koala endogenous retrovirus (KoRV) envelope that are responsible for its infection in diverse species. He says it was a chance to "test out the career and see things that otherwise would not be possible." Telahun, a recent graduate of Wheaton High School, plans to major in biochemistry at Princeton, where he won a full scholarship.

Ernika Quimby of Sherwood High School also won a full scholarship. She plans to major in biology and an interdisciplinary program that combines philosophy, neuroscience and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.

"This is the most amazing science program for high school students anywhere in the world," said Sandra Shmookler, director of STIP and special assistant to the MCPS superintendent. "They get to spend a year at the NIH and many of them get published. They really become scientists."

For more information, online applications and deadlines for the 2007-2008 school year, visit

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