Teens Search for Cures in Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Program

Posted: August 23, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: August 25, 2010 at 10:29 am

By Marjorie Musick

Have you ever seen teens working side-by-side with world-renowned scientists? It’s happening at Mason, where 39 high school juniors, seniors and college undergraduates spent the summer investigating global challenges such as cancer, HIV and Lyme disease as part of the university’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP).

The ASSIP allows students to explore science and medicine while working alongside the university’s researchers. This summer, the students put in eight 40-hour weeks at Mason’s Prince William and Fairfax Campuses.

Dedicated faculty mentors — 31 in all — trained students this summer in areas such as chemistry, biochemistry, proteomics, genomics, neuroscience, biodefense, bioinformatics, nanotechnology and environmental science.

For the students who participated, the experience will likely have long-term career benefits. Through regularly scheduled meetings with their mentors, as well as program-wide lab safety training, career workshops and guest speaker seminars, students receive exposure to levels of science that many aspiring researchers will not see until they enter the workforce.

Getting Published

Many ASSIP participants have even seen the results of their summer work published in scientific journals or presented at professional conferences.

According to the program’s director, Amy Van Meter, 12 students have cowritten scientific journal articles; eight were listed on abstracts for national conferences; three have cowritten a submitted book chapter; and two students had their research included in patent applications.

Temple Douglas worked in the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine with Dr. Alessandra Luchini. Photo by Evan Cantwell

One such student, Loudoun County resident Temple Douglas, is a two-time ASSIP participant and recent graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. As a result of her participation in the program, Douglas has already submitted a patent for technology that can diagnose Lyme disease earlier than ever before. She was also named a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search Competition and will begin her first semester at Princeton University in the fall.

“The students have gained hands-on experience with cutting-edge technology to answer very important scientific questions and have learned and practiced marketable technical skills. Our goal is to make the students more confident about their long-term educational and career goals and enrich their educational experience,” says Van Meter.

Eradicating AIDS

But for the ASSIP participants, the most valuable benefit of spending a summer in the lab may be the opportunity to pursue their passion for treating and curing diseases.

Selamawi Tilahun, a student at Northern Virginia Community College, will receive his associates degree in spring 2011. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Selamawi Mesfin Tilahun, an Ethiopian native who attends Northern Virginia Community College, grew up watching HIV ravage his home country. Now Tilahun is investigating new ways to treat and prevent this devastating disease.

Working alongside Fatah Kashanchi, professor and research director in Mason’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, Tilahun is studying the physiology of the HIV virus in order to develop a new drug or a therapy that can fight it.

“My dream was to always become a medical doctor and help those in need. I really wanted to do something to help people who suffer due to HIV/AIDS. This program has really made me consider doing an MD/PhD [medical scientist dual degree], like some of the people I met in this program,” says Selamawi.

“This experience has made me see that I can indeed make a change in the world. It really helped me understand that there’s a lot I can do. I have realized that things that I used to believe were undefeatable can have solutions, even though it requires strong values, such as ambition, passion and, obviously, a strong set of technical skills.”

A closing ceremony for the program took place on Aug. 16 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center on the Prince William Campus. As part of the ceremony, the students presented their findings during a poster session, just the way professionals do at scientific conferences.

Founded in 2007 by cancer researchers Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin III, who direct Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, the ASSIP is now in its fourth year.

For additional information about the ASSIP program, see the website.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu