Programs for high school and undergraduate students ‘prime the pump’ for the future

What do zebrafish tell us about genetic defects? How can you tell a vein from an artery on an ultrasound? What can drosophila teach us about eye disease?

About 100 high school juniors and seniors got the answers as well as a taste of life as a researcher, clinician, nurse and more at the annual High School Science Symposium held at Cincinnati Children’s in March.

The symposium, in its 20th year, is the kickoff event to a summer filled with opportunities for young people interested in biomedical careers.

Those opportunities have grown under the guidance of Sandra Degen, PhD, associate chair of academic affairs at Cincinnati Children’s. Degen credits her science career to having worked in a laboratory several summers while in college. The protein chemist she worked for became a mentor and advisor to both Degen and her then-future husband on their choices of graduate school and career direction.

“It made such a difference for me, so when I had the opportunity to help create similar opportunities for high school and young college students here, I did,” she says.

Coordinating all the opportunities for high school students falls to Cindy Bachurski, PhD. Bachurski, formerly a faculty member in pulmonary biology, is now a science recruiter for Cincinnati Children’s. She devotes extra time to our high school programs because she understands the importance of encouraging future generations of skilled young scientists.

“These kids are our future scientists and clinicians,” Bachurski says. “We want to make sure there is a ready pool of bright, well-trained young people we can recruit from.”

Other programs for would-be scientists include a Summer Internship Program for graduating high school seniors. Highly competitive, this program offers opportunities to 16 area teenagers interested in careers in pediatric medicine and research. Students spend 20 hours a week shadowing clinicians and researchers and working in their laboratories or offices.

The Biomedical Research Internship for Minority Students (BRIMS) program offers graduating high school seniors and college freshmen the opportunity to work full-time on a biomedical research project over the summer.

“Medical and graduate schools want better-prepared minority applicants,” Bachurski says, “and this program was developed to help fill that need. Students can have a great GPA, but if they don’t have research experience it can be tough to get into graduate school or medical school, or to get a job in a biomedical field.”

Aimed primarily at college undergraduates aspiring to science careers, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship is Cincinnati Children’s largest summer program. Directed by Sherry Thornton, PhD, a researcher in the Division of Rheumatology, and Cynthia Wetzel, PhD, of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, the program attracts more than 1,000 applications each year from students around the country. About 80 students are selected to participate. Students work full time in a research laboratory, attend research training courses and seminars, and participate in networking and social activities.

Cincinnati Children’s summer programs have become highly sought-after, says Degen, because of the involvement and support of our faculty. More than 100 faculty devote their time, as well as their grant funds for the fellowships, to work with young people in the programs.

“Maybe it’s because they remember what it was like when they were young researchers, but faculty come back to us year after year asking for these students,” Degen says. “A lot of places do this, but we go above and beyond.”