Aspiring Scientists Program Puts Young Scholars on Research Cutting Edge

Posted: September 26, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: September 26, 2011 at 10:55 am

Text by Leah Kerkman Fogarty; video by Paul King

Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP) wrapped up its fifth year in August with final presentations highlighting all of the original research projects completed through the program.

ASSIP provides hands-on research experience to high school juniors, seniors and college undergraduates interested in exploring science and medicine.

This summer, the 48 students put in eight 40-hour weeks at Mason’s Prince William and Fairfax Campuses as they worked benchside with their dedicated Mason faculty mentors ― 33 in all ― from disciplines such as chemistry, biochemistry, proteomics, genomics, neuroscience, biodefense, bioinformatics, computer science, nanotechnology, physics and environmental science.

Through regularly scheduled meetings with their mentors, as well as program-wide lab safety training, career workshops and guest speaker seminars, students received exposure to levels of science that many aspiring researchers will not see until they enter the workforce.

Research projects this summer included investigations into such health challenges as cancer, HIV, tuberculosis, Alzheimer’s disease and illnesses resulting from biothreat agents.

Making ‘Significant Advancements’

Following their final presentations, where students explained their research findings to an audience of interested Mason faculty and staff members, students and community members, Amy VanMeter, director of ASSIP, spoke of the powerful work these students have completed.

“Every year, I am moved to tears by something these students have accomplished,” VanMeter says. “One of the students said to me, ‘We are finding the pieces of the puzzle to cure disease.’ And that’s what each and every one of these students is doing ― they’re making significant advancements in their areas of science, and I’m so very proud of them.”

Lance Liotta, co-director of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine and one of the founders of ASSIP, urged those present to “remember the names of all of these students” since audience members would see those same names in print as award finalists, as authors of publications, as holders of patents and, eventually, as famous researchers and CEOs of biotechnology companies.

“We have high hopes that discoveries from this summer will end up as new treatment strategies for infectious disease or cancer ― or will provide new clues for developmental biology or how the brain works,” Liotta said.

Liotta’s hopes are well-founded. ASSIP alumni have had their findings published in academic journals, and one former student even has a license pending for a first-of-its-kind, noninvasive diagnostic test for Lyme disease.

Boosting Confidence and Skills

Preparing the next generation of science leaders is a key goal of this program. Take Trish Ike, a two-time ASSIP alumna and graduate of Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Va., who is now attending Duke University. She credits the program with boosting her confidence and skills.

“I think one of the most important things I have learned is to definitely take the initiative,” says Ike, who researched alcoholic liver disease using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis with Mason faculty mentor and assistant biochemistry professor Robin Couch.

“Because of this program, I’m more confident in my science classes when approaching new ideas and topics because I know the right questions to ask and the right techniques to uncover the answers,” Ike says.

Other aspiring scientists and their projects this summer include:

  • Chandler King, a junior at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, Va., and the Governor’s School @ Innovation Park, located on the Prince William Campus, who spent his summer identifying protein biomarkers for lung cancer in order to locate lung cancer cells in the early stages. His mentor was proteomics researcher and faculty member Claudia Fredolini in the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.
  • Annalise Schoonmaker, a sophomore at Cornell University and a three-time participant in ASSIP, who studied a gene that could potentially inhibit replication of the Rift Valley Fever Virus, an emerging infectious disease that affects both livestock and humans. Her mentor was Kylene Kehn-Hall, assistant professor in Mason’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases.
  • Alex Chen, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., who worked with Jason Kinser, associate professor in the School of Systems Biology, to design a new process to combine queries of many different types of data simultaneously. This tool was used to combine speech and facial recognition. Alex will be presenting his work at the Applied Imagery Pattern Recognition Workshop in Washington, D.C., in October.

ASSIP is funded by corporate and personal donations. The 2011 ASSIP was supported by donations from Micron Foundation, Lockheed Martin, Prince William County Economic Development, Fisher Scientific, CellSignaling Technology, Corning, SCHOTT, Invitrogen, Applied Biosystems, Eppendorf, Aushon Biosystems, McGraw Hill, Dako, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Applied Scientific, USA Scientific and Northern Virginia residents.

For more information on the program, visit the ASSIP website.

Write to mediarel at