NIEHS Scholars Connect Program (NSCP) completed its sixth year April 20 with the annual Spring Symposium. The NSCP brings undergraduates from universities in the NIEHS area to the institute for a year-long research experience. During the symposium, the scholars present their research to the NIEHS community (see sidebar).
“This is NIEHS’s concerted effort to connect with the Triangle-area colleges and universities,” said Ericka Reid, Ph.D., in her welcoming remarks. Reid directs the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity, which sponsors NSCP. “It’s part of our effort to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in the sciences, and more specifically, environmental health science.”
Robert Sills, D.V.M., Ph.D., head of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Cellular and Molecular Pathology Branch, chaired the session. He introduced each of the ten speakers and asked probing questions about their work.
NSCP operating at capacity
This year, for the first time since the program began in 2012, NSCP recruited a full complement of ten young people. More emphasis on outreach to specific faculty advisors at the local schools by program organizers contributed to a noticeable increase in applications.
“When we did exit interviews and asked our scholars how they had heard about the program, most of them said ‘Because my advisor — my research advisor, my faculty advisor, my professor — told me about the program’,” observed Suchandra Bhattacharjee, Ph.D., the NSCP coordinator.
NSCP outreach continues to yield results. Ten scholars are already signed up for the 2018-2019 program, which gets underway in June. More NIEHS scientists are volunteering to serve as mentors and lead researchers. “We have great support and advocacy from top leadership, so they encourage folks to get involved,” Reid noted.
A future physician-scientist
Dhruv Shankar, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), was named NSCP Scholar of the Year, the program’s highest honor. “For me, it means that I have the skills to be an effective scientific thinker and researcher, someone who can reason through the process,” he said. This fall, Shankar will begin studies at the Icahn Medical School at Mt. Sinai.
“What was different about this opportunity was the chance to not only do scientific research, but to be in a research environment,” he said. “It’s not just about the work you’re doing at your table, but discussing and sharing results with others, receiving feedback, providing critiques, and understanding the human impact of your work.”
His mentor was Shepherd Schurman, M.D., associate medical director of the NIEHS Clinical Research Unit. Schurman thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “It was a tremendous opportunity to give students an opportunity to participate in environmental health research at NIEHS,” he said. “It’s been great, especially with Dhruv, to give back to the same processes that led me to be a doctor and a physician-scientist.”
Recognition for scholars and mentors
After presenting their research, the scholars received certificates documenting their achievement. The students took the opportunity to thank their NIEHS mentors.
Simrat Arora, a senior at UNC, expressed gratitude for her mentor, Lalith Perera, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Computational Chemistry and Molecular Modeling Support Group. “Dr. Perera has been a great mentor, and I have learned a lot from him,” she said.
UNC senior Caroline Brock Reed, who worked under Jean Harry, Ph.D., leader of the NTP Neurotoxicology Group, expressed her gratitude for Harry’s guidance. “She taught me a heck of a lot, she challenged me, and she inspired me to be [an impressive] lady scientist!” she exclaimed.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)