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Connecticut high schoolers get a taste of real-world research

They could have spent their summer lounging around at the beach, earning some extra spending money or traveling. But a handful of Connecticut high school juniors found their ideal summer vacation in a less typical location—Yale School of Medicine research labs.

“The whole idea is to expose these students to really doing science,” says Gil Mor, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and creator of the Discovery to Cure program, one of several initiatives that immerse high school students in Yale’s research labs.

This past summer, the fourth year of the program, 20 students from 10 high schools spent six weeks tackling some of the biggest questions in biomedical science.

Kaitlin Markoja, from Cheshire High School, worked in Mor’s laboratory studying the relationship between the immune system and pregnancy.

“People who are pregnant don’t respond to viruses in the same way as other people, and we’re trying to understand this,” Markoja explains.

Markoja, like most of the participants, already knew she wanted to pursue a career in science or medicine, but the Discovery to Cure program cemented these plans. “It was such a hands-on experience,” she says, “right from the beginning.”

Irene Visintin, a research associate who coordinates the program with Mor, says this deep involvement in real-world research is what makes the Discovery to Cure program unique.

“We don’t want them in there washing glassware; that’s not the goal,” she says. “They’re actually getting their hands dirty on some of the latest and greatest equipment in the country.”

And the benefits of the program, says Visintin, are far from one-sided. Not only do the students contribute to research, but they remind more senior researchers why science is fun.

“They absolutely inject enthusiasm into the labs,” she says. “They ask a million and one questions and run around smiling. They are just really excited to be here.”

Mor’s original inspiration for designing the ambitious program came when he was trying to think of ways to get local high school students interested in science, and interested in applying to Yale.

“Many kids in the area don’t apply here,” Mor explains. “They always think Yale is something belonging to a completely different world. And there’s a decrease in the number of these young kids going into science and medicine.”

So Mor initiated the program with just a few schools, and six students came to Yale that first summer.

“We were a little afraid of bringing teenagers into the lab,” he admits. “They might break things, damage things. But the opposite happened. They contributed to the lab. The work that they did was outstanding.”

That year, Mor asked teachers at the participating high schools how many of their students planned on applying to Yale. The answer was zero.

But last year, four students who completed the Discovery to Cure program applied to Yale, and two ended up enrolling. Other program graduates now study science and medicine at top-tier schools like Harvard, Cornell and the University of Chicago. Some have returned on summer breaks to do research at the School of Medicine.

Mor hopes that as more medical school labs become receptive to participating, he’ll be able to collaborate with more high schools to increase the size of the program.

Kelsey Hogan, a budding neuroscientist from Mercy High School in Middletown, worked this summer in the laboratory of Tamas L. Horvath, D.V.M., Ph.D., chair and professor of comparative medicine, and professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and neurobiology.

In Horvath’s lab, Hogan studied how obesity in pregnant mice affected their offspring, spending most of her days dissecting mouse brains to look for dye that indicated the activity of cells that control appetite.

This painstaking work might turn some people off from science, but Hogan loved it, and she is now convinced she wants to continue doing neuroscience research. “This was like the best summer vacation I’ve ever had,” she says.