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Mentoring Runs in the Family
Mentoring Runs in the Family

Summary

NIH researchers Thomas Weickert and Cynthia Shannon Weickert share an interest in schizophrenia research—and in mentoring teens.
Thomas Weickert—a soft-spoken National Institutes of Health neuropsychologist—decided to mentor high school students and teachers when one of his colleagues suggested he would enjoy the role. The coworker, who was mentoring teens herself, also was his wife.

Cynthia Shannon Weickert started mentoring in 1995, in an HHMI-supported program that places Montgomery County (Maryland) high school students and teachers in National Institutes of Health (NIH) labs. After two years, Shannon Weickert realized that while some interns loved the molecular and cellular brain research taking place in her lab, others would benefit from training with her husband, whose behavioral work would expose them to actual patients. In 1997, Tom Weickert joined the Student and Teacher Program to mentor students during the school year and teachers in the summer.

The Weickerts have shared interests and endeavors for more than a decade. They discovered a common passion for science when they met in a statistics course at Manhattan's Hunter College, where both were enrolled in a graduate program in biopsychology. They might have gone separate ways if Cynthia's mother hadn't insisted that her daughter find an escort to the evening lectures she frequently attended in New York.

Cynthia pressed Tom into service and wound up with a partner for life, as well as someone who shared an interest in schizophrenia. Weickert's research focuses on the cognitive deficits of patients with schizophrenia. Shannon Weickert is more concerned with the molecular changes that take place in the brains of such patients. Today, they both work in the National Institute of Mental Health Clinical Brain Disorders Branch in Bethesda, Maryland.

Seventeen-year-old Kevin Arnold, Shannon Weickert's current intern, has been captivated by the research he has done in her lab this year. Come September, he will be a freshman at Emory University, where he plans to study neuroscience. About to graduate from Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, Arnold and 16 other student interns are presenting their research at a May 2001 symposium at HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland. "This kid is bright," says Giovanna Ungaro, a research assistant who helps supervise Arnold. "He likes the hardest aspects of neuroscience. And Shannon Weickert "takes a personal interest in everyone who works under her in the lab," Ungaro adds. "The fact that he's following in Cindy's footsteps shows the impact she's having."

The research experience helps some participants in the internship program, now in its 11th year, decide what not to do with their lives. One of Weickert's students worked on a research project designed to compare schizophrenia patients' own assessment of their symptoms with their scores on a cognitive abilities test. She collected self-assessment data from patients, analyzed and compared it to cognitive test scores that Weickert had compiled, and worked with him to interpret the results. "I think that helped her in her career choice," Weickert says. The student concluded that she was not interested in doing clinical research.

The scientists say they gain as much as the students from the mentoring relationship. For starters, says Weickert, it's nice to get the extra help. Shannon Weickert adds that an inquisitive student like Arnold, "with a young and insightful mind, who asks novel questions and has a fresh approach, forces you to examine things you've taken for granted. It can open up a whole new angle of thinking."

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Jim Keeley
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