By LaTina Emerson
Georgia State University is preparing the next generation of scientists for research careers through its summer science programs. High school students from across the state — and occasionally beyond — can participate in programs that allow them to attend college-level lectures and gain experience in research labs focused on neuroscience, cancer and more. They’re getting a jump-start on learning lab techniques, designing experiments and making valuable contributions to faculty research projects.
Learn more about Georgia State’s summer science programs for high school students:
The Neuroscience School
Now in its third year, The Neuroscience School, created by Georgia State’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, offers one-week summer courses for high school students on the university’s Atlanta Campus. Students age 15 and up can register online and pay tuition for the one-week course of their choice, with a sliding scale tuition based on family income.
The Neuroscience Boot Camp, one of the program’s courses, gives students the opportunity to take an introductory, college-level class on neuroscience topics, dissect sheep brains and design scientific experiments.
In June, students participating in the Neuroscience Boot Camp carried out an experiment to determine why people sweat when they eat spicy foods. The students ate hot salsa and took saliva samples before and after to compare the levels of a hormone called cortisol. Using a laboratory test called an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, they added a series of different chemical reagents to the saliva to cause reactions that allowed them to see how much cortisol was present.
“One of their hypotheses was that the spiciness causes an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, in your circulatory system,” said Dr. Sarah Clark, a postdoctoral researcher at Georgia State and an instructor for the Neuroscience School. “We’re teaching them the scientific method, so they design and carry out the experiment from start to finish. In the process, they use current laboratory techniques in our research facilities.”
Clark enjoys teaching high school students and trying to get them interested in neuroscience.
“The students we get here tend to be really motivated and interested in science,” Clark said. “We’ve had a fair number of them go on to pursue neuroscience as undergraduates after doing the boot camp.”
Last year, students came from as far as Florida and Texas because there are few summer programs focused on neuroscience, said Jennifer Walcott, project coordinator for the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience.
Kiyanie Fedrick, a rising senior at Kennesaw Mountain High School in Cobb County, chose to attend the Neuroscience Boot Camp because she would like to become a neurosurgeon. She wanted to be sure she was interested in neuroscience before going through years of college and medical school.
The boot camp has affirmed the 17-year-old’s career plans. In college, she might major in neuroscience or biomedical engineering.
“I’m very interested. I think it’s so cool,” Fedrick said. “They were giving us a lot of different options of what you can do in the neuroscience field, so I thought that was nice as well. I’ve gotten better with the brain anatomy because we did the sheep dissection, and I thought it was really cool to see where everything was and how it all connects.”
Organizers hope to offer a third course next year, incorporating genetics and microscopy. For more information about The Neuroscience School, visit https://sites.gsu.edu/neuroscienceschool/dates/.
The Institute on Neuroscience (ION)
The Institute on Neuroscience (ION), also sponsored by the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, is an eight-week, paid research internship for high school students that enable them to work in research labs at Georgia State, Emory University, Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Marcus Autism Center.
The program receives more than 100 applications each year from across the country for 10 positions. In addition to submitting a written personal statement, transcripts and ACT/SAT scores, finalists must complete an in-person interview, relay a genuine enthusiasm for research and communicate interest in a research-related career.
They must also convey ideas well through writing, have well rounded interests and show leadership skills by holding leadership positions in school clubs or leading their mock trial, academic bowl or science bowl teams, said Dr. Kyle Frantz, a professor in Georgia State’s Neuroscience Institute and director of the Neuroscience School’s ION programs. She started ION in 2003 with a grant from the National Science Foundation.
“The quality of students who apply for and are admitted to ION is extremely impressive,” Frantz said. “They are truly outstanding. It’s also amazing to watch them negotiate the new environment in the lab and help them give slide presentations almost at the graduate school level by the end of the summer.”
The 10 students participating in this year’s program attended a one-week orientation at Emory that covers neuroscience topics, research skills and scientific writing. For the remaining seven weeks, students are matched with mentors and work in their labs from Monday through Thursday, making contributions to research projects.
This summer at Georgia State, one student is using computer programming to model the behavior of nervous system cells based on different conditions. Another student is studying mechanisms that regulate food intake and how different parts of the brain influence whether or not an animal chooses to eat a sugary substance versus regular chow. At the Marcus Autism Center, a student is studying vocalization in babies and between babies and their parents to predict whether a child will later be diagnosed with autism.
Some students enjoy the research experience so much that they continue working in their mentor’s lab after they’ve entered college. Several former ION students have gone on to pursue careers in neuroscience or medicine.
“Our goal is to recruit and inspire the next generation of scientists,” Frantz said. “We recruit students using curricula in neuroscience, but we think our students could go on to any area of science. Perhaps more importantly, the skills they acquire in these summer programs would be broadly applicable to critical thinking in any area of their lives, making them better citizens.”
Catch Them Young
Catch Them Young, funded by Georgia State’s Molecular Basis of Disease Program, debuted last year. The free, eight-week program allows high school students to work one-one-one with a mentor in a faculty member’s research lab. They can choose from six research areas: biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics/statistics, physics/astronomy and neuroscience. Fourteen students were selected for this year’s program.
Dr. Ritu Aneja, professor of cancer biology and a Distinguished University Professor at Georgia State, conceived the idea for Catch Them Young after receiving emails every summer from high school students who were interested in doing research in her lab. She contacted about 20 local schools to gauge interest, and the response was overwhelming, she said. As a result, she decided to start a formal summer research program.
“We need to bring in these kids who are so scientifically curious and inquisitive and expose them to the world of research,” Aneja said.
Students complete a rigorous application process and are nominated by their high school. During the program, they receive individual instruction from a mentor, a senior graduate student who was nominated by the principal investigator. The high school students benefit from someone who can work side-by-side with them, and the graduate students gain valuable mentoring experience.
“They are smart. They are really inquisitive. That’s the first sign that they are going to be great next-generation scientists. These kids are amazing,” Aneja said. “We want them to come back to Georgia State. This is essentially building a pipeline. We need to make research labs accessible to bright, young minds.”
Vani Senthil, a rising senior at Duluth (Ga.) High School, says she has learned more in two weeks of working in Aneja’s lab on breast cancer research than several years in school.
She aspires to attend medical school, possibly an M.D.-Ph.D. program, to become an oncologist and continue doing research. In Aneja’s lab, she has been staining breast cancer slides and would like to continue her work during the school year.
“I came here looking for experience so I could be part of more research in the future, but I also like the feeling that I’m not just clustered in my high school,” Senthil said. “I feel like I’m part of something bigger now, a huge community of researchers and scientists.”
Next year, Aneja plans to offer college credit and make the program available to more schools. In the future, she would like to offer stipends to Catch Them Young participants to make the program accessible to more students. She is seeking sponsors to fund Catch Them Young fellowships.
Photos by Carolyn Richardson