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Environmental Factor

August 2011

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Students from Duke summer program tour NIEHS

By Darshini Trivedi
August 2011

John Schelp

Schelp quickly developed a rapport with his guests and clearly enjoyed his role as host and guide. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Debbie Wilson

As she described the summer internship experience, Wilson also offered practical advice on finding the right fit for the internship experience. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Michael Humble, Ph.D.

Along with an introduction to NIEHS, Humble talked about his own experience in the Institute's Summer Internship Program and how it helped him decide to get his doctorate in toxicology. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

at the right, Wendy Jefferson, Ph.D.

Jefferson, right, shared her passion for endocrine disruption research with students gathered in her lab. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A group of 18 rising seniors from Duke University's Summer Undergraduate Fellowship program and their three graduate student mentors learned about environmental health science during a visit to NIEHS June 18. The students are participants in the National Science Foundation-funded Chemistry Research Experience for Undergraduates hosted by Duke's Chemistry Department.

Organized by NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity specialists John Schelp and Ericka Reid, Ph.D., the two-hour program of classroom instruction, a tour of NIEHS, and a visit to a research laboratory was one of the several outreach efforts conducted by NIEHS this summer for students at area colleges and universities.

Introduction to resources and research at NIEHS

The program began with an overview of the NIEHS Summer Internship Program (SIP) by coordinator Debbie Wilson. Wilson described SIP as a mentoring internship and said the 8-12 week paid internship offers high school and college students a great opportunity for gaining hands-on experience in a research laboratory. During her talk, Wilson also emphasized the importance of a good cover letter and how critical it is to the application process.

Wilson's presentation was followed by a 45-minute overview of NIEHS by Michael Humble, Ph.D., a health scientist administrator in the NIEHS Cellular, Organ, and Systems Pathobiology Branch. Humble started off by giving the students a brief description of the 27 institutes that comprise the NIH and examples of the types of research conducted at the different institutes.

Humble then talked in detail about NIEHS and its vision “to prevent disease and improve human health by using environmental sciences to understand human biology and human disease,” along with the four main components of the vision - basic research, human health and disease, global environmental health, and training. Amongst the variety of research conducted as part of global environmental health, Humble mentioned the GuLF (Gulf Long-term Follow-up) STUDY and the efforts of NIEHS scientists to study the long-term effects of the oil spill on the cleanup workers and volunteers.

A hands-on tour of an NIEHS lab

The students then joined Schelp for a walking tour of the Institute. While standing in the lobby in front of Rodbell auditorium, Schelp acknowledged many of the famous scientists from NIEHS, including Nobel laureate Martin Rodbell, Ph.D., and described in simple terms his award-winning research on how cells communicate. Schelp also described NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., as being “very passionate about environmental health.”

Wendy Jefferson, Ph.D., a biologist in the Reproductive Medicine Group, gave the students a tour of her laboratory and talked about the research that her lab group conducts on studying the effect of the environment on reproduction and development. Jefferson talked about one of her favorite projects studying the effects of the phytoestrogen genestein on the reproductive status of mice.

As Jefferson told the students, phytoestrogens are naturally occurring plant steroids found in many consumable products, such as baby food, and high exposures of these compounds may have adverse effects on reproduction and development. She also discussed the various stages in embryonic development, including morula, blastula, and gastrula, and gave the students an opportunity to observe an early mouse embryo at the 4-cell stage of development, under a microscope.

Asked about their overall thoughts on the tour, one of the students said enthusiastically, “I loved learning about all the research going on here. It is all very interesting.” The students found the tour very informative and thought NIEHS seemed to be a “nice place to work.”

(Darshini Trivedi, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Metabolism and Molecular Mechanisms Group.)

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