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Environmental Factor, August 2012

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NIEHS summer interns learn from experience, and the experienced

By Ian Thomas

Julia Zhang

As the expression on the face of Julia Zhang indicates, at its best, the summer learning experience is not only fulfilling, but fun. Zhang is an intern in the Biostatistics Branch. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Sarah Swerdlow

Swerdlow led off the lineup of postdocs who took students through basics of genetics and DNA repair. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Expectations were high, as dozens of students gathered in Rodbell Auditorium for a series of seminars to complement their lab work in the NIH Summer Internship Program (SIP) at NIEHS, which is headed by coordinator Debbie Wilson of the Institute’s Office of the Scientific Director. In the course of eight weeks at NIEHS, the interns spend time at the bench and engaged in seminars designed and coordinated by a dedicated group of the Institute’s postdoctoral fellows (see text box).

“Being a part of this program is an incredible opportunity, because of the experience it allows you to garner,” said Spencer Nelson, an environmental science major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and an intern in the Laboratory of Respiratory Biology Environmental Genetics Group. “So many of my friends back on campus are stuck in offices, doing menial tasks and assignments, but here I get to make contributions and be a part of the research every day.”

A key component of SIP is its commitment to giving students actual, hands-on experience in a world-class biomedical research setting. Through mentor-style partnerships with members of the intramural research team, NIEHS strives to teach its interns, first-hand, what it means to conduct experiments and analyze data.

A diverse environment of learning

In addition to their time in the lab, students also participate in a series of educational seminars, designed to expose them to a wide range of scientific disciplines, from cancer research to bioinformatics. The format of seminars ranged widely, as well, from formal lectures and group presentations, to hands-on activities.

The “Mutagenesis” seminar, spearheaded by Nisha Cavanaugh, Ph.D., Stela Palii, Ph.D., and Sarah Swerdlow, Ph.D., created a context for the importance of molecular genetics research, by presenting the effects of mutations and the environment on human diseases. Invited speakers from the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics – Shay Covo, Ph.D., Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., and Jessica Williams, Ph.D. – walked the students through a typical experiment in each of their research projects and instructed them on how to interpret the data. Finally, students’ understanding of the presentations was assessed, with a rousing game of Genetics Jeopardy. "Our internship program is about teaching these students how to perform and interpret professional level experiments,” said Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D. “With that goal in mind, we wanted to get students engaged in what we were saying and put them in a position to think interrogatively as scientists.”

Ashley Godfrey, Ph.D., and Kirsten Verhein, Ph.D., offered a more conventional lecture style for the second seminar presented by NIEHS toxicologist Mike DeVito, Ph.D., titled “Protective Mechanisms in Toxicology: Metabolism.”

The third seminar, organized by Qing Cheng, Ph.D., and Kristin Lichti-Kaiser, Ph.D., focused on immune response to environmental challenges. Donald Cook, Ph.D., from the Laboratory of Respiratory Biology, taught students about immune response in the lungs after exposure to environmental agents and allergens. Seddon Thomas, Ph.D., and Bethany Hsia, Ph.D., also led an activity designed to introduce the students to their research, by guiding them through some methods and using microscopes to examine lung inflammation from samples.

Beyond the Institute

As the summer wound to a close with the annual SIP poster session, where students present projects showcasing what they’ve learned during their time in the program, many interns admitted that, while they entered this experience confident in their love of science, their time at NIEHS has expanded their view of the field.

“This is my second year in the program and it’s been an enormous learning experience for me,” said Fei-Lin Scruggs, a recent high school graduate who studies DNA repair in the Laboratory of Structural Biology DNA Repair and Nucleic Acid Enzymology Group. “I’ll begin my freshman year of college this fall and, while I always knew I wanted to study science, my experience here at NIEHS has taught me what it means to be an actual researcher.”

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Mike DeVito, Ph.D.

DeVito drew upon his experience in regulatory science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and in toxicology at NIEHS, in his overview of classical toxicology and the emerging paradigm of predictive toxicology using high-throughput screening. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Andrew Passler

As an intern in the DNA Replication Fidelity Group, Andrew Passler took naturally to the microscope exercise. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Paul Gibson

North Carolina State University student Paul Gibson is spending his summer working with Division of Extramural Research and Training Health Scientist Administrator Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., and Health Scientist Thad Schug, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jeffrey Stumpf and Nisha Cavanaugh

Stumpf, right, and Cavanaugh listened to Swerdlow, as they waited their turn to present. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Donald Cook, Ph.D.

Cook’s presentation on inflammatory response moved smoothly into a hands-on exercise at microscopes. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Yasmin Crespo-Mejias

Intern Yasmin Crespo-Mejias traveled from Puerto Rico this summer to spend her second year as an intern with the Reproductive Developmental Biology Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Postdocs tailor training for summer interns

A group of NIEHS postdoctoral fellows spearheaded the design, coordination, and implementation of the 2012 SIP seminar series.

This summer’s workshops included:

“Mutagenesis and Maintenance of Genome Integrity”

  • Organizers:
    • Sarah Swerdlow, Ph.D., Mechanisms of Mutation Group
    • Stela Palii, Ph.D., Environmental Stress and Cancer Group
    • Nisha Cavanaugh, Ph.D., DNA Repair and Nucleic Acid Enzymology Group
  • Guest Speakers:
    • Sarah Swerdlow, Ph.D., Mechanisms of Mutation Group
    • Shay Covo, Ph.D., Chromosome Stability Group
    • Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group
    • Jessica Williams, Ph.D., DNA Replication Fidelity Group

“Protective Mechanisms in Toxicology: Metabolism”

  • Organizers:
    • Ashley Godfrey, Ph.D., Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group
    • Kirsten Verhein, Ph.D., Environmental Genetics Group
  • Guest Speaker:
    • Mike DeVito, Ph.D., Experimental Toxicology Group

DEE-fense! Immune Responses to Environmental Challenge”

  • Organizers:
    • Qing Cheng, Ph.D., Ion Channel Physiology Group
    • Kirsten Lichti-Kaiser, Ph.D., Cell Biology Group
  • Guest Speakers:
    • Donald Cook, Ph.D.
    • Seddon Thomas, Ph.D.
    • Bethany Hsia, Ph.D.
    • All from the Immunogenetics Group

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