Each summer, the NIEHS Scholars Connect Program (NSCP) welcomes up to 10 undergraduates for a year-long experience with cutting-edge biomedical research. NSCP kicked off its sixth year June 5-7 with a laboratory skills bootcamp. This year’s applicants were a competitive group, highly sought after by laboratories across the institute.
Inspired by the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, NSCP was the brainchild of Ericka Reid, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED). Recruitment activities focus on students from historically black colleges and universities, as well as underrepresented groups from nearby universities. The program helps NIEHS meet Goals 8 and 9 of its strategic plan, which relate to enhancing environmental health science education and inspiring a diverse cadre of scientists.
The spirit of the program was captured in remarks at the fifth annual White House Science Fair, in 2015. “We don’t just want to increase the number of American students in STEM,” said then President Barack Obama. “We want to make sure everybody is involved.”
Boot camp for new scholars
“We’re excited about this incoming cohort,” Reid stated. “They are here because they are already successful. This experience will surely enhance that success and move them further along the pipeline.”
Volunteers from across the institute presented a wide variety of sessions. The training was fast and furious, with briefings on scientific ethics and other topics, as well as demonstrations on asceptic techniques and cell culture by Negin Martin, Ph.D., acting director of the NIEHS Viral Vector Core.
The boot camp experience introduces the scholars to NIEHS and laboratory work as a group, before they move onto their various labs. The students gave the training high marks, and some said they had not had an opportunity to work in the lab during the previous year. “This helped me get comfortable again before starting research,” said one student.
A year of promise
Now working in separate labs, the scholars pursue projects ranging from optogenetics to biostatistics. They will present preliminary findings at the NIEHS Summer Internship Program Poster Session on July 27. They return in the fall and spring semesters, working 15 hours a week, with further opportunities to present their research.
In addition to research experience, the students have access to career mentors who help them successfully transition from student to scientist. Suchandra Bhattacharjee, Ph.D., the NSCP Program Coordinator, noted that this year was already proving to be successful. “There is a lot of enthusiasm for Scholars Connect,” she said. “The scholars, mentors, and OSED look forward to a very exciting and productive year.”
(Simone Otto, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research and Training Award postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Ion Channel Physiology Group.)