The Real World: Aspiring Scientists Learn How It’s Done

Posted: August 17, 2009 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: August 19, 2009 at 4:51 pm

By Marjorie Musick

Amanuel Shitaye, a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, works in The Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine

Amanuel Shitaye, a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, measures carefully while working in Mason's Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine. Creative Services photo

Some high school students spend their summer playing by the pool. Others spend it working in George Mason University’s science labs.

Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Program (ASSIP) provides the opportunity for high school juniors, seniors and college undergraduates interested in exploring science and medicine to work alongside the university’s researchers. Investigations include global challenges such as cancer, HIV, biodefense and climate change.

Robin Couch, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has five ASSIP students working this summer with his four-person lab team. The researchers are investigating a small molecule from a fungus that may be useful for treating Alzheimer’s disease. Couch says his goal is to give students exposure to what it’s like in the real world of science – both the bench work and the economics behind it.

“From an educator’s perspective, I think that this is a great opportunity to show these students the frontline, right-in-the-trenches type of work for developing a pharmaceutical from the grass-roots level,” says Couch. “I also try to expose them to the reality of the economics underlying science. They always hear me talking about how expensive everything is.”

Sarah Albani, McLean High School , Attending GMU Fall 2009 Matthew Sutton, Virginia Tech Masoumeh Sikaroodi, GMU Mentor, Dr. Patrick Gillevet’s laboratory (Environmental Science & Policy)

Sarah Albani, a McLean High School graduate who will attend Mason this fall, gets to use equipment in the laboratory of environmental science and policy professor Patrick Gillevet. Mentor Masoumeh Sikarood and Virginia Tech student Matthew Sutton observe. Creative Services photo

Participants spend eight 40-hour weeks at Mason’s Prince William Campus, which is known for its concentration of life sciences research.

“We have extremely dedicated faculty and staff who mentor, guide and teach the scientists of the future,” says Amy VanMeter, ASSIP director.

“What we’re looking for is someone who’s really eager to learn and work hard. It’s not a science course or a prep lab where they’re doing mock experiments. These students are using cutting-edge technology to perform very important experiments alongside our scientists. So if our scientists are using $200,000 instruments, then our ASSIP participants are also using those instruments.”

ASSIP was founded in 2007 by cancer researchers Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin III, co-directors of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine. Now in its third year, ASSIP has grown from 12 to 23 participants.

“With the world’s demand for scientists growing at an exponential pace, we need to do whatever we can to encourage high school students and undergrads to enter science fields. The Aspiring Scientists Program brings talented young minds out of the classroom and into a working lab,” says Vikas Chandhoke, dean of the College of Science.

“If even one of these students decides to pursue a career in science, then we will have made a difference.”

For the students who participated, the experience will likely have long-term career benefits. In previous years, students had the results of their summer work published in scientific journals or presented at professional conferences.

Clinton Enos, GMU Dr. Yuntao Wu, GMU Mentor , The National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases

Mason biology major Clinton Enos works with mentor and cancer researcher Yuntao Wu in the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases. Creative Services photo

“We’ve actually had nine students so far who have been published. One student’s research led to a patent. They’ve been extremely productive,” says VanMeter.

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.

In a concluding session on Aug.17, the participants presented their findings on the printed posters that are commonly shown at scientific conferences.

“The quality of the students is fantastic. They’re just destined to do great things. It’s nice to be part of that process for them,” says Couch. “The ASSIP program is bigger than just the opportunity for high school students to work in a lab in the summer. It is growing into a real community service.”

Although the majority of the students are from Northern Virginia, applicants from around the nation are eligible to apply. The application process includes submitting a letter of recommendation and undergoing a personal interview. For more information, see the ASSIP web site.

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