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Environmental Factor, August 2012

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Student tour highlights summer internship opportunities

By Eddy Ball

Stephen Craig, Ph.D. and students in Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program

Craig, center, joined his students for Kunkel’s brief talk about genome stability. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

College students involved in a summer program housed in the chemistry department at Duke University enjoyed something a little different during their tour of NIEHS July 17. Like previous visitors from schools and colleges, this year’s group from Duke’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program learned about the Institute’s focus on environmental health, explored science career opportunities, and had a chance to see scientists at work during their half-day visit to NIEHS.

What made the 2012 tour stand out for many of the students was the final speaker on the program, Fiona Porkka —a member of last year’s REU group who followed through on what she learned by applying to the Summer Intern Program (SIP) last winter. This summer, Porkka is spending a summer of scientific discovery in the Laboratory of Neurobiology working with a group headed by lead researcher Jerry Yakel, Ph.D.

Porkka talked about her experience so far this summer and answered questions about the application process, finding the right match for a summer mentor, and even such practical details as summer housing and the culture at NIEHS.

Organized by Special Assistant for Community Engagement and Outreach John Schelp, the lecture segment of the program included an overview of NIEHS and its leadership in advancing environmental health; a science talk by postdoctoral fellow Michael Boyle, D.V.M., of the NTP Cellular and Molecular Pathology Branch; a discussion of career paths from college to NIEHS by postdoctoral fellows Tammy Collins, Ph.D., of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics, and Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., of the Laboratory of Structural Biology.

Following their tour of the facility, the students visited the lab of lead researcher Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D., chief of the Laboratory of Structural Biology. After a short talk about genome stability, Kunkel led the students in rotation at three microscopes where experiments were underway. Just before breaking for lunch and returning to Duke with their faculty mentor, Stephen Craig, Ph.D., the students heard from Porkka.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), REU is an 11-week residential program for undergraduates from schools throughout the country who are majoring in chemistry or a chemistry-related discipline. This is the second year that REU participants have toured the Institute as one of their field trips during their stay at Duke.

Fiona Porkka talks to students in Duke’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program

Porkka, left, shared her excitement over her summer project, which involved exploring the potential for using a novel drug, phantasmadine, a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist, in the treatment of neurological disorders. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D.

Kunkel explained the difference between RNA and DNA. Because it has oxygen, RNA is unstable and actually poses a threat to genome stability. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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