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Vol. LXI, No. 16
August 7, 2009

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A Field of Science Dreams
Teens Visit NIH for Alcohol Science, Education Program

Students in the Jeter’s Leaders program visit with Dr. Dennis Twombly of NIAAA in front of his interactive Drunken Brain exhibit. Dr. Fumihito Ono shares a laugh with the group during their visit to his zebrafish lab.
At left, students in the Jeter’s Leaders program visit with Dr. Dennis Twombly of NIAAA in front of his interactive Drunken Brain exhibit. Right, Dr. Fumihito Ono shares a laugh with the group during their visit to his zebrafish lab.

For baseball lovers, summertime means heading to the ballpark to root, root, root for the home team. But for some young fans of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, it means a road trip to NIH. They belong to Jeter’s Leaders, a youth leadership program named for the baseball superstar and funded by his Turn 2 Foundation. On July 7, 60 students from the group traveled to Bethesda to see the “big leagues” of biomedical research.

This marked the sixth year that Jeter’s Leaders have visited NIH, a relationship that started with an invitation from NIAAA public liaison officer Fred Donodeo. “It’s a great match for our outreach efforts because the program serves youth from New York City and Kalamazoo, Michigan, who are committed to living healthy lifestyles and becoming peer educators,” he said. From the day’s opening pitch, an introductory overview about NIH from Visitor Center director Jennifer Gorman, this year’s students were once again treated to a full lineup of science presentations.

Leading off was Dr. Judith Arroyo, an alcohol treatment and prevention researcher and NIAAA’s coordinator for minority health and health disparities program. Smiles broke out across the room as she began her presentation in rapid-fire, fluent Spanish. As a first-generation child of Mexican immigrants, Arroyo is bilingual and bicultural, something she has in common with many of the Jeter’s Leaders students whose families also came to the U.S. from Latin American countries. She discussed her background and presented results of NIAAA-sponsored research on alcohol use disorders in Latino and other ethnic communities.

“I think I got their attention with my Spanish. It’s not every day these kids get to meet someone with a Ph.D. who can tell them in Spanish she did not speak English when she started school,” says Arroyo. “It’s important to model that attribute to them, so they know somebody with a similar background can excel in science and go on to college and advanced studies.”

Next up was Dr. Vivian Faden, acting director of NIAAA’s Office of Science Policy and Communications, and a senior scientific editor of the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. Faden explained why underage drinking is one of NIAAA’s research priorities. She then fielded a barrage of questions on binge drinking and related topics. “The students asked fascinating questions,” she said, “giving us a window into how they process scientific information and relate it to observations about their family and friends.”

The students then toured the National Library of Medicine’s exhibit on global health, allowing a seventh-inning stretch before visiting Dr. Markus Heilig, NIAAA clinical director. He described how alcohol use can progress to alcohol dependence.

For the next half of the double-header program, the group split up for site visits. The “rookies” on their first NIH experience traveled to the Poolesville facility for a tour and presentation by Dr. Christina Barr, who investigates the interaction of alcohol and genes involved in the brain’s reward circuitry. Meanwhile, the veterans from previous trips viewed the Drunken Brain exhibit created by NIAAA scientist Dr. Dennis Twombly.

Always a popular speaker with the students, Twombly threw a curveball this year by revealing he had planned with the team’s coordinator to show the older students how to set up and present their own Drunken Brain exhibit for younger audiences back home. “The kids usually are good listeners anyway, but this year I think they paid extra attention knowing they’d be expected to give this talk themselves,” said Twombly.

The day’s big closer was Dr. Fumihito Ono in NIAAA’s Laboratory of Molecular Physiology. He explained how the tiny zebrafish has a big role in advancing our understanding of alcohol exposure during development. Peering closely at some zebrafish, one student was amazed as a hatchling emerged right before her eyes. “That baby should be named after me,” she announced proudly to her friends.

“For me, that moment was like a home run,” said Donodeo. “That’s the kind of enthusiasm for science that can only come through a hands-on experience like today’s visit.” He looks forward to welcoming future students to a front row seat at the friendly confines of NIH. NIHRecord Icon

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