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Environmental Factor, December 2015

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Three NIEHS Scholars Connect students win travel awards

By Simone Otto

Burwell presenting her poster

Burwell, shown during an NIEHS poster session in July, presented her work at the ABRCMS conference. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Walton Presenting her poster

Walton also presented her poster at the conference, gaining valuable experience by discussing her research with attendees from a wide range of specialties. (Photo courtesy of Ericka Reid)

Three NIEHS labs are pleased to count among their members winners of student travel awards from the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS)

The winners (see sidebar) are Alanna Burwell, in the NTP Molecular Pathogenesis Group, headed by Darlene Dixon, D.V.M., Ph.D.; Carri Murphy, in the Chromosome Stability Group, headed by Michael Resnick, Ph.D.; and Porscha Walton, in the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Office of Health Assessment and Translation, led by Kris Thayer, Ph.D.

The awards enabled the three participants in the NIEHS Scholars Connect Program (NSCP) to travel to the ABRCMS, Nov. 11-14 in Seattle. ABRCMS bills itself as the largest professional conference for underrepresented minority students, military veterans, and persons with disabilities.

A transformative experience

Attending the conference was a transformative experience for these young scholars. “My experience at the conference was amazing,” said Murphy. “I had the opportunity to meet Desmond Tutu's daughter, Dr. Naomi Tutu, who gave a wonderful speech about being black in the sciences, and it inspired me. The conference motivated me to strive for excellence, step outside my comfort zone, try new things, and to never stop asking questions.”

As participants in NSCP, Murphy and the other two winners will be able to put the conference experience to practical use. “Scholars Connect gives the scholars a chance to meet with top leadership at NIEHS, have guidance in career development, and three opportunities to present throughout the year,” said Erica Rogers, Ph.D., who coordinates the program for the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED).

“We started in 2012 and are extremely pleased that three of our six scholars this year received travel awards,” added Ericka Reid, Ph.D., director of OSED. Rogers and Reid staffed an NIEHS booth at the conference.

NSCP opens the door for undergraduate students interested in a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Juniors and seniors from academic institutions in the local area spend three semesters on a single research project, under the guidance of a lead scientist, as well as a postdoctoral fellow or staff scientist mentor.

Meaningful contributions

The NSCP lasts an entire year, providing opportunities for the scholars to contribute in a meaningful way to the research in their laboratories. “I have been impressed with the seriousness of the [students in the] NSCP,” said Resnick.

Resnick’s high opinion of the program was shared by Dixon. “This program is a good opportunity for our staff to interact with, and mentor, students interested in biomedical careers,” she said.

Kembra Howdeshell, Ph.D., mentor for Walton, added, “We can often get caught up in the jargon of our specialties. Working with Porscha has helped me improve my ability to explain the science we do.”

David Menendez, Ph.D., mentor to Murphy, agrees. “Having a student to mentor also pushes you,” he said. “They start with naive questions, but that pushes you towards thinking about your project. Over the course of the year, the transformation the students' experience is fantastic. In addition, they are able to apply what they learn here to their university experience, and we are able to use their results in the next project.”

“Alanna’s project will help us understand how environmentally relevant concentrations of cadmium cause fibroid tumor cells to grow,” said Yitang Yan, Ph.D., one of her mentors. “This work is of interest to both lay and scientific communities.”

(Simone Otto, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Ion Channel Physiology Group.)

Walton, Murphy, Burwell, and Tobias

From left, Walton, Murphy, Burwell, and Tobias Flow took a moment from the packed conference schedule to pose at the NIEHS booth. Flow, an NCCU senior, is another NSCP participant who attended the conference. (Photo courtesy of Ericka Reid)

Murphy standing in front of poster

Murphy is a returning scholar and, in April, was the winner of the first NSCP Outstanding Scholar Award. (Photo courtesy of Ericka Reid)

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