NextGen gives high school students insight into biomedical research

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A dozen high school students, mostly from Atlanta-area schools, spent five weeks of their summer shadowing Emory researchers and genetic counselors at the School of Medicine’s Human Genetics Department. of Emory. The biomedically oriented internship program is called NextGen and was first offered this summer.

“I love my lab because it gives me responsibility,” said Dhakiya Knights, who was an intern in neuroscientist Andrew Escayg’s lab. “They say ‘You can run a freeze.’ What can I do? It was different from what I expected, but I enjoyed it.

A similar program (the Six-Week Research Program for Summer Researchers) has been offered by Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute since 2001.

“I’ve always loved my job, but this summer was over and beyond,” Emory geneticist Emily Allen said at a July 7 symposium when NextGen trainees presented their research or a biomedical topic of their choice. “The 12 students who were here were just amazing.”

Allen organized the interns’ daily activities, which included time with researchers, lectures on biology and genetics, and field trips such as visits to the Emory National Primate Research Center and the Microsoft Technology Center.

A departmental committee chose the 12 NextGen interns from a pool of more than 50 applicants. NextGen focuses on historically underrepresented minorities; the group consisted of 11 African American students and one Latina. Eleven students were female and one was male.

Most of the students commuted from their homes in the Atlanta area, while two stayed in dorms on Emory’s Clairmont campus. One dorm intern was from Minnesota, while the other was looking to avoid a long drive from Newton County.

“The NextGen program has gone so well that in the future, we would like to see if we can offer it to high school students across the country,” said Peng Jin, director of the human genetics department.

Six laboratories in the Department of Human Genetics hosted trainees, as well as Gary Bassell’s laboratory in the Department of Cell Biology.

An overview of possible future careers

Interns were matched with labs relevant to their career goals, which covered a wide range of fields. Sophie Lee, for example, had shown an interest in neurosurgery and was able to meet scientists attempting to model the development of the human brain in cultured “assembloids”. She gained experience in Bassell’s lab growing neurons derived from induced pluripotent stem cells under the guidance of postdoctoral fellow Nisha Raj.

In contrast, Kadin Russel, a high school student from Cobb County, was leaning toward studying nursing. NextGen allowed him to gain more clinically relevant experience shadowing multiple genetic counselors at the Lysosomal Storage Disorders/Genetic Clinical Trial Center.

This confirmed his earlier interest, Russell says. But would she consider becoming a genetic counselor? “Maybe.”

Kini Bibai, who worked with developmental biologist Tamara Caspary and her colleagues, learned how to prepare skeletons of brightly colored mice with impaired development. Primary cilia are the focus of Caspary’s lab: they are tiny hair-like or antennae-like structures that help cells respond to signals during development.

She and fellow intern Estela Lozier gave a presentation in which they argued that high school students should learn primary cilia, something they hadn’t learned in biology class. Bibai says her summer experience shifted her interests, in that she was previously more aware of careers related to math or statistics.

“It showed me something I can really do,” says Bibai. “It’s not that impossible.”

The program (a $2,000 paid internship) was supported by the Avantor Foundation and through departmental funding. The ministry plans to offer the program again next year.

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