May 2, 2003

VUMC program introduces high schoolers to world of science

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Nadeze Alvarez, a junior at MLK Magnet School, looks at bacteria on a plate with mentor Laurie Earls, a graduate student in Heidi Hamm's lab. (photos by Dana Johnson)

VUMC program introduces high schoolers to world of science

From left, Dan Ruley, Chuan Liang, and Drew Sheldon, all sophomores at MLK, look at science publications during their visit to Vanderbilt.

From left, Dan Ruley, Chuan Liang, and Drew Sheldon, all sophomores at MLK, look at science publications during their visit to Vanderbilt.

Joey V. Barnett, Ph.D., associate professor of Pharmacology, Medicine, and Microbiology and Immunology, believes in giving young students as many opportunities as possible to explore the world of science.

Heidi Hamm, Earl W. Sutherland Jr. Professor of Pharmacology and chair of the department, had the idea of bringing high school students into research laboratories. Together, they created a new program directed at high school students called PharmX. The eight-week program, designed for 10 students, takes place in the research labs in the Department of Pharmacology.

“We are in the business of training and teaching,” Barnett said. “These students are here to learn right along with us. We as scientists are learning all the time and we are partners in learning with students.”

The eight students come from two local schools —Hume Fogg Academic Magnet High School and Martin Luther King Science Magnet High School. Each student was chosen by a faculty coordinator and later matched to a lab and mentor at Vanderbilt.

“These students are really interested in science as a career,” Barnett said. “We are giving them an opportunity to see how science works.”

Barnett likened the experience of early exposure to that of an untrained artist exploring work in a museum.

“You can either look at art or someone can give you a brush and say ‘create,’ he said. “As early as possible we want to give the kid the brush.”

For Nadeze Alvarez, 17, PharmX has piqued her interest in science.

Although she has always loved science, involvement in the program gave her hands-on experience that she feels will assist her in the future.

“I decided to enroll because I knew this would be a great opportunity for me to get experience in the lab as well as help me make my decision on whether or not molecular biology is something I want to pursue in the future.”

Alvarez is working with Laurie Earls in Heidi Hamm’s lab.

Earls, 27, is a third-year graduate Pharmacology student. She is studying Regulators of G-Protein Signaling (RGS) in dopamine signaling in the striatum of the brain. She is mentoring Alvarez during her eight weeks at Vanderbilt. Her goal is to teach the MLK student how to subclone.

“This will involve important, basic molecular biology techniques such as PCR, culturing bacteria, and isolating DNA,” Earls said. “She should learn a good number of techniques, but there won’t be such an overwhelming amount of work that we won’t have time to sit down and make sure she has a strong understanding of what she is doing and where it fits into the grand scheme of science.”

Although Earls did not have the opportunity to work in a lab until she was an undergraduate, she knows it takes a specific type of student to take on such a task.

“While I think that I would have greatly benefited from learning lab techniques as a high school student, I was not ready for the mental challenge that science presents,” she admitted. “Laboratory science may sound exciting, but it can be very taxing on both the mind and on a person’s time. Students without the maturity or education level may not be primed to learn in this way and therefore may not gain much from this experience.”

Earls said students should be able to walk away with an experience that will prepare them for college-level science courses.

Students spend approximately two to three hours daily in the labs, working with Mike McDonald, Brian Wadzinski, Ron Emeson, Jack Wells and Bih-Hwa Shieh.

At the end of the program, the group will make presentations about the lab experience, which includes attending lectures, seminars and classes. For those students seeking further instruction and involvement in the research lab, the potential exists for continued relationships throughout their high school careers.

“This kind of program can do a lot for these students,” Barnett said. “They will learn basic science, how to work as a team, which is very important, and they will learn the vocabulary for framing problems. This is something most students don’t learn until they are in college.”

Dan Ruley, a 16-year-old student at MLK, said his lab experience has already given him a better understanding of how science works.

“I have gained a sense of what practical science is instead of getting the information out of the text book. At school, the experiments we do have already been done before. Now, we are figuring out unknown stuff.”

“Even though we have been able to get the basic feel of the lab at school, this is real,” he said. “Since starting here, my experience has already helped me with my AP courses. I am already at an advantage.”

Barnett said the hope of the program is to assist students in confirming and validating their interests in science and get a jump on making the most of science in their college experiences.

But the PharmX program has more than the young scientists interest in mind.

“As scientists, I am hoping it will renew our excitement about science —we can share our enthusiasm for science,” Barnett said. “Just seeing these young students will help us remember what got us excited about science in the first place.”