High Schoolers do cutting-edge research at USU

A close-up of a vial of pink fluid is being held in the foreground by Cameron Newcombe, whose face is out of focus in the background. Cameron Newcombe, a rising senior at Walt Whitman High School, holds a vial of media for HEK 293 cells, which are used in testing the hypothesis she’s working on with Andrew Leung, another rising senior at Walt Whitman High School, in the lab of Dr. Frank Shewmaker, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology at USU. (Image credit: Christopher Austin)
 By Christopher Austin

Summer internships are a thing to be fondly looked back on; students get their first taste of a professional career, and every so often, lucky students find an opportunity to do critical research into devastating diseases.

Andrew Leung and Cameron Newcombe were both about to go into their senior year at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md.  They hoped to get involved in a science internship for the summer, and by chance found an internship at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). They were mentored by Dr. Frank Shewmaker, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology at USU, who had a very specific job for them.

“We study a protein called FUS that clumps up in the motor neurons of [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] patients. The clumping up of this protein causes motor neurons to die,” said Shewmaker. “Our students are testing a hypothesis where this protein is modified at specific sites, and this modification can reduce its clumping up; so it offers a mechanism to fight the disease.”

The Uniformed Services University Summer Research Training Program began back in 2012 under the guidance of Shewmaker and Dr. Rachel Cox, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at USU. The program takes about 20 to 30 student interns every summer, most of whom are entering their senior years or have just graduated.

Elizabeth Lee and Isabella Vazirani sit at the desk of Dr. Robert Kortum with an open laptop between them. Across the desk from them is Kortum, who is going over their research poster with them.
Elizabeth Lee of Thomas S. Wootton High School, and Isabella Vazirani of Stone Ridge High School, both going into their senior years, go over their poster presentation with Dr. Robert Kortum, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology at USU. (Image credit: Christopher Austin)

“Before, all we really had were the students and volunteers who would come in during the summer by reaching out to individual labs,” Cox said. “We thought the University would benefit if there was a program that could be more formal for the students.”

In addition to doing research in the lab, students participate in a seminar series, and get to present their posters at a research symposium at the end of the program.

Shewmaker taught Leung and Newcombe a technique called western blotting that allows them to observe the effects that modifications done to the protein can have. While western blotting is a very common technique used in university-level research, it isn’t likely something that most  high school students will have experienced just yet.

“I’ve done nothing like this before,” said Newcombe, “I was familiar with some of the terminology, and some of the processes we’d talked about [in AP Biology], but not as in-depth as we learned here.”

According to Shewmaker, a quarter of interns go on to Ivy League schools or similar prestigious universities, while all report going to college. The majority of interns select a science major.
A prior intern, Michael Panagos, is currently a junior at the University of Michigan with a major in Biomedical Engineering. He has been returning to USU almost every summer since his high school graduation to work in Shewmaker’s lab.

“The lab skills and background in biology make me competitive for lab positions [at the University of Michigan] because they don’t have to teach me anything from scratch,” Panagos said. “USU has the same kind of equipment and the same kind of setting as a place like the University of Michigan. Research is research, and they do really good research here.”

Cameron Newcombe and Andrew Leung present their research on a poster to a number of people in a crowded room with other such presentations going on behind them.
Newcombe and Leung present the findings from their summer internship at the research symposium at USU. (Image credit: Christopher Austin)

Different research areas that the interns have tackled include Alzheimer’s disease, color perception in virtual reality, and the use of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique to alter mitochondria.

Elizabeth Lee, of Thomas S. Wootton High School, and Isabella Vazirani of Stone Ridge High School, were mentored by Dr. Robert Kortum, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology at USU, and tested the effects that certain genes have on the mutation of signaling pathways that can lead to cancer.

“I think it’s really nice because it’s a smaller program where we really get to do research in the lab,” Lee said. “I know a lot of my friends are doing research internships at other institutions and they say they’re just plugging information into spreadsheets.”

At the end of the summer, the students presented their findings in a research symposium, much like USU students do at the University’s Research Days before graduation. There, Shewmaker and Cox thanked the interns for their hard work and congratulated them all on their bright futures.

Shewmaker and Cox hope to expand the variety of applications that they receive to the highly-competitive internship thanks to a stipend provided to the students by the University through the Office  of the  Vice President for Research  to help ease the pressures of commuting to the university and not working during the summer.  The VPR office also provided funds to support the extra research costs of mentoring interns.

For more information about the internship, visit the  program’s website.