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A crash course in real-world research

Medicine@Yale, 2011 - July August


The School of Medicine’s summer internships immerse high school students in research projects and take science education beyond the classroom

John Solder, a 17-year-old who will be a senior at Staples High School, in Westport, Conn., this fall, has a summer internship in the School of Medicine laboratory of Ralph J. DiLeone, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and neurobiology. But Solder isn’t fetching coffee for the lab—instead, he is collaborating with DiLeone on experiments using optogenetics, a cutting-edge technique in which specific brain circuits can be selectively activated when exposed to light.

Solder is one of more than 100 high school students doing research internships in labs at the medical school this summer, according to Sara Rockwell, Ph.D., professor of therapeutic radiology and pharmacology and associate dean for scientific affairs. “Student interns have to complete a summer project with a mentor, and in doing so they find out what it means to be a scientist,” Rockwell says.

Solder, who was a member of a Staples High robotics team that won a world championship this spring, is no stranger to the medical school campus, having spent last summer working in the laboratory of Amy F.T. Arnsten, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology. In Arnsten’s lab, Solder explored potassium channels in nerve cells of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which are a promising target for drugs to forestall age-related memory loss. Solder presented his work at the Connecticut Science Fair and at the Connecticut Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS), where he and four other students were chosen to represent the state at the national JSHS meeting held this spring in San Diego.

Solder says that he has learned from Yale scientists both inside and outside the lab. “It’s interesting hearing what they talk about at lunch,” he says. “It’s not just about last night’s football game.”

Some high school students who wish to work in a Yale lab follow Solder’s approach, independently e-mailing a professor whose work matches his or her interests. Others come to the School of Medicine through established programs, such as the Discovery to Cure internship created in 2004 by ovarian cancer expert Gil Mor, M.D., Ph.D., of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences.

“I was afraid all of the smart, ambitious students would go into business to make money,” Mor says. “There is a misconception that science is dark and lonely for a bright person.”

Students are nominated to participate in the six-week program by their high school science teachers, and then selected by School of Medicine faculty. This year, Mor had 140 applications, and he says the program has grown from just two students in its first year to 27 this summer. Since the inception of the Discovery to Cure internship, five interns have had the heady experience of being coauthors on papers published in the scientific literature. And in addition to doing experiments, interns are given comprehensive training in other aspects of science, including lab safety.

For many teens in the Discovery to Cure program, which places students in labs across the medical campus, the internship is their first exposure to the excitement of formulating a scientific research question, something impossible to grasp when performing well-trodden experiments in their high school’s labs. “They come in and within six weeks they are talking like a scientist, seeing what happens when a research question works, or doesn’t,” says Mor. At the end of the internship, all participants give a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation on their work.

Michael H. Bloch, M.D., M.S., assistant professor in the Child Study Center and assistant director of the medical school’s Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Research Clinic, regularly invites high school students to join him as summer interns. Typically, he says, students interested in OCD or Tourette’s syndrome approach him after reading about his work online. “I’ve been really impressed with how knowledgeable and enthusiastic they are,” he says. “It’s nice to have a fresh set of eyes in the lab. Often interns ask questions that many experienced people don’t ask.” Bloch, who worked in labs while in college, says of the high schoolers, “I think the experience gives them a glimpse into what clinical research is like, what mental illness is like, and also teaches them valuable skills for the workplace.”

According to Rockwell, because many Yale graduate students don’t have an opportunity to teach, having a high school student in the lab gives them an opportunity to flex their mentoring muscles. Interns come from around the world, but most come from Connecticut, and Rockwell believes that “anything that brings a higher level of involvement between the local community and Yale is a good thing.”

Taylor DeRosa, 17, who attends Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Conn., is working this summer for both Mor and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Seth Herzon, Ph.D. on an antibiotic with the potential to attack tumors. DeRosa says that her summer internship has made a deep impression, and that she is seriously considering a career in research. “There was a moment when I was holding a compound in my hand, and I just felt like it was important work,” she says. “That’s not something you feel in Chemistry class.”