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This program, sponsored by HHMI and NIH, allows high schools in Montgomery County to nominate students to work in a lab on the NIH campus. Around 20 students each year work in a lab during the summer and four afternoons a week during their senior year. That means Kozlowski can ask the students to tackle projects that might not be possible in the short term. During the summer, “they do a few things, they learn them, and they may not get a chance to repeat them,” says Kozlowski, who has hosted students for a dozen years. “For the lab, we get a much better deal when they come back.”
Most scientists assign a staff member, usually a graduate student or postdoc, to be the student's day-to-day contact, to answer questions, and to oversee progress. It helps if they're working on similar projects. Program veterans say the student helps the mentor at the same time the mentor helps the student.
In many cases, these assignments are important teaching experiences for graduate students and postdocs, since many science graduate students aren't required to teach classes, Ackerman says.
Shiao, the postdoc from Braun's lab, works harder now that she's mentoring Puente. “It is not like you just hand them the project and run with it. You teach them a lot because you want them to enjoy it,” she says. Originally, she worried that mentoring a high school student would be a burden, but Puente was a quick study—and has ended up helping Shiao with her own projects.
Jackson Lab bioinformatics researcher Carol J. Bult mentors her high school interns herself because she thinks it makes her a better scientist. “They aren't embarrassed by asking basic questions that sometimes make us as mentors … say, ‘I've never stopped to think about that,'” she remarks. “I tend to think more critically about what I'm doing.”
Sometimes the entire lab takes on an intern as a team, which is how it has worked for Jackson Lab summer students Elizabeth Deerhake and Ryan Keating in Gary A. Churchill's lab. “It forces us to explain things. It makes the writing better and the presentations better,” says Churchill, who includes the students in lab meetings.
Deerhake and Keating had a bit of a head start on the summer: they each took an online bioinformatics class taught by Churchill and his research program manager Randy Smith. The students were offered the year-long course through their state's specialized math and science high schools—Deerhake in North Carolina and Keating in Maine—and then found out about and applied for the summer internship. But being in the lab is different. “Every day it is like a new problem that you're facing. And when you get the results that you want—or even the ones you didn't expect—it is really exciting,” Deerhake says.
When it came time for the students to give a presentation to the other summer students, Smith took that task as seriously as the science. “We're scientists. We generate knowledge. And the only way the community sees what we've done is through our publications and presentations,” Smith explains. He videotaped the students' practice presentation so they could watch themselves and improve. A friendly critique labeled Keating the “swaying ship” and Deerhake the “hand puppeteer.”
For their formal presentation, Deerhake and Keating tag-teamed in a talk worthy of a research meeting—with much less swaying and hand waving. It put their work in a larger context and elicited good questions on each of their projects. “I want to inject an enthusiasm that is going to carry through the next 10 years of their lives,” Smith says. “I want to show them that doing this kind of stuff is fun.”