Environmental Factor, September 2009, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
A Community of Support for the Summers of Discovery Students
By Laura Hall
For this year's Summers of Discover interns, the July 29 Poster Session was the culmination of four to six weeks of experimental research. The posters were also the result of special efforts made by many members of the NIEHS community to provide an enriching experience for the high school, undergraduate and graduate school students. The program allows the young interns an opportunity to experience what being a scientist is really like and to fulfill one of the ongoing NIEHS missions - to mentor and train future scientists.
It is not just mentors in the labs who are involved. Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and NTP, took time out of her busy schedule to talk to the students about their projects when they were setting up their posters. Deputy Scientific Director Bill Schrader, Ph.D., explained poster presentation skills.
Twenty postdoctoral fellows judged the posters using 50 criteria. Acting laboratory branch chiefs gave special seminars on research at NIEHS. Staff scientists made presentations on research and career options. The students had special classes in laboratory skills. Debbie Wilson, coordinator of the 2009 Summers of Discovery Program, and Diane Klotz, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Fellows' Career Development, were involved in planning and scheduling all aspects of the program.
For the laboratory technicians, postdoctoral fellows and staff scientists involved, it takes work to mentor a student. Wes Gladwell, senior biologist in the Environmental Genetics Group who mentored Alexandra Levitt, explained, "You've got four to six weeks to train them and finish a project..., so you've got to figure out what they can actually do in that period to get it done."
Others in the laboratory help out with the training, particularly when the mentor is unavailable. The students "learn something from everyone." said Sylvia Hewitt, biologist in the Receptor Biology Group.
For those who enjoy teaching, the rewards can be great. Ron Cannon, staff scientist in the Intracellular Regulation Group, mentored North Carolina State University (NCSU) undergraduate John Peart, who won one of the Best Poster awards (see related story (/news/newsletter/2009/september/spotlight-2009sod.cfm)). Cannon enjoyed seeing the students "flourish and develop...[I]n some cases they come up with ideas that you would not have thought of because they're thinking outside of the box. That to me is very, very satisfying."
Valuable research can be generated. Gladwell said, "We had 34 in-bred [mouse] strain screens that we had done over the three years so we had all the phenotype data to look at...but she [Levitt] helped me compile all of it and was probably learning the software as fast as I was."
Susan Elmore, NTP pathologist and staff scientist, mentored Laura Crawford, Ph.D., an NCSU veterinary student Elmore considered to be "exceptional." In two summers in the program, Crawford completed a high-resolution color histology atlas of normal liver and biliary systems in developing mice. "It will be one of the prized resources in the toxicologic-pathology community that everybody uses" for phenotyping transgenic mouse embryos, declared Elmore.
It is a great opportunity for the students, particularly for those trying to decide on their career track. Gladwell said, "I really think kids get to decide if science is for them or not for them. I think a lot of kids never really even considered research [before]." For more independent students, first authorship on a scientific paper is a possibility. Crawford is first author on the histology atlas paper resulting from her work, which is now ready for internal review.
Speaking of his own experience this summer, Cannon said, "I had a mentor...[who] said, 'You build a boat and you push it off and watch it sail.' So I think that's what we're doing here in the mentoring program." It takes a community of "boat builders" to nurture future scientists. For the many involved, from the director to the laboratory technician, it's well worth the effort.
(Laura Hall is a biologist in the NIEHS Laboratory of Pharmacology currently on detail as a writer for the Environmental Factor.)