Next Generation of Innovators Get Early Start on Science Careers

Nov 3 2014

Next Generation of Innovators Get Early Start on Science Careers

High school students from Philadelphia are getting out from behind their desks to explore basic science careers in The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute’s state-of-the-art laboratories and work beside topnotch faculty.

It is crucial that more students are inspired and energized to become the next generation of innovators because the pipeline of young investigators in the United States has slowed to a trickle. Only 16 percent of American high school seniors are interested in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career; yet job openings in STEM are expected to be among the fastest growing occupational clusters through 2020.

That is why the Research Institute’s senior leadership, Office of Responsible Research Training, Office of Research Safety, and faculty members are thrilled to have partnerships with two local schools that give bright students the opportunity to take the beaker caps off their ambitions.

“It can be an exciting and formative experience,” said Jodi Leckrone, MEd, assistant director of the Office of Responsible Research Training. “They can ask people, ‘How did you get to be a lab tech? How did you get to be a post-doc?’ And then they can start to formulate their own plan to pursue those kinds of goals.”

With beaming smiles and contagious enthusiasm, two sets of high school juniors began their work-study programs in September. Six students are from Science Leadership Academy, a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute that provides a college-preparatory curriculum focused on science, technology, mathematics, and entrepreneurship. SLA students come to CHOP weekly for two to four hours. Each student is paired with a faculty member, and this year the hosts include Ian Krantz, MD; Motomi Enomoto-Iwamoto, DDS, PhD; Francis McGowan, MD; Eric Marsh, MD, PhD; Beverly Emanuel, PhD; and Sharon Diskin, PhD.

The other students are from Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, an independent, Catholic college-preparatory school open to all faiths and dedicated to students from families with limited economic means. This is the first year that the Research Institute has partnered with Cristo Rey, and Robert Fabiszewski, director of the school’s work-study program, is grateful for the placements that will prepare students to realize their full potential.

“I believe this program fuels students’ passion for science and their drive toward accomplishing their dreams,” Fabiszewski said. “The sky is the limit. It’s very exciting!”

Fabiszewski selected four young women with an aptitude in science and medicine to job-share a full-time position in the neurosurgery laboratory of Adam Resnick, PhD, and Phillip (Jay) Storm, MD. Each student works in the lab one day a week and logs her work in a notebook so that the next day her classmate can pick up where she left off.  They work closely and contribute scientifically to projects focused on targeting pediatric brain tumors, in partnership with staff, technicians, graduate students, and post-docs.

“For us, the power for scientific research to be transformative extends far beyond the discovery process,” Dr. Resnick said. “Having these four students join our laboratory for an entire school year provides a unique opportunity for lasting synergy between education and research.”

Before they get to work, the students participate in an orientation and learn the basics about laboratory safety. In their first few weeks, they observe lab skills and set individual goals. By December, they will be immersed in an actual research assignment under the supervision of their faculty mentor, in accordance with the Research Institute’s Minors in Research Laboratories policy

“Students see what a real-life lab environment is like and what the different job roles are, how they come up with project ideas, how their project idea fits within a larger question on improving health,” Leckrone said.

At the end of their work-study experience, SLA students from the 2013-2014 school year gave a short slide presentation about what they learned to their principals, advisers, faculty mentors, lab mates, and the research training staff. For example, students who completed the program described their work on cardiac stem cells, cellular and molecular mechanisms of cartilage tumors, and brain development in Cornelia de Lange Syndrome.

SLA student Amy Chen had a phenomenal experience working with Dr. McGowan last year, even though she was challenged to step out of her comfort zone.

“Every day, there was always a word that I didn’t understand,” Amy said. “I’d have to research the word in order to understand the next step of the project.”

The most amazing part, she recalled, was getting a chance to see thin slices of heart tissue from animals and humans. Spending time in the laboratory helped Amy decide that she wants to study biology and attend medical school to become a pediatric cardiology surgeon.

“I know that I will be one step ahead of my peers because of this program at CHOP,” Amy said. “One of the most important things that I achieved is building a relationship with my mentor.”

Colleen Ambron, MBA, training coordinator for the Offices of Postdoctoral Affairs & Research Safety, facilitates the SLA students’ work-study program. She encourages dedicated students like Amy to take advantage of the professional network at CHOP and establish connections with research leaders who can point them in the right direction for higher education. Perhaps former work-study students will continue working in the labs once they are in college, or maybe they will come back in between going to medical school and then onto their fellowships.

“I love working with the students,” Ambron said. “They’re really excited when they first come here, and they think, ‘Wow, this is CHOP.’ It’s an eye-opening experience for them. They are a great group of kids, and we get so many ‘thank you’s’ for giving them this opportunity.”

As interest in the high school work-study program continues to grow, Ambron and Leckrone welcome faculty who are willing to host students to contact them: ambronc@email.chop.edu and leckrone@email.chop.edu.