SummaryMaryland high school student Nancy Kim spends her afternoons doing research at the National Institutes of Health, as an HHMI-NIH intern. Predoctoral research fellow Ninet Sinaii, at left, helps mentor her.
Not many 17-year-olds find themselves donning blue scrubs and a mask to watch laparoscopic surgery on a huge plasma TV screen right in the operating room. Nancy Kim has been doing that and more. Mornings, she attends classes as a senior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, but she spends her afternoons culturing mouse embryonic cells and learning to screen potential clinical trial subjects for a research study on pelvic pain and endometriosis—when she isn't observing surgical procedures.
During the surgeries, which last approximately one hour, Kim peers intently at the screen, seeing exactly what the surgeon is seeing. When it's over, she helps label bottles of tissue from the surgeries, readying them for future study. "It is so cool," she says.
Throughout the school year, Kim, who wants to become a physician, has been working with a team of scientists from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The NIH researchers are studying the relationship between chronic pelvic pain and endometriosis. They're investigating whether surgery combined with the drug raloxifene, a drug already licensed to prevent and treat osteoporosis, can have an impact on the condition.
'I love this work," says Kim. "I am learning so much about clinical research."
She is participating in an HHMI-supported student and teacher internship program at NIH that enables high school students to receive academic credit for conducting real biomedical research, with NIH scientists as mentors and advisors. A handful of high school science teachers also work on research in NIH labs each year. Kim and 18 other Maryland high school students will present their findings at a symposium on May 13 at HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Kim came to the program with a passion for medicine initially inspired by work as a weekend volunteer at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, where she helped keep charts and feed orthopedic patients. She heard about the NIH program from her biology teacher and decided to apply.
Participating in the NIH research internship, however, meant giving up other school activities, including volleyball, marching band, where she played the flute, and Step, a dance team. It was a sacrifice willingly made. "It's a lot to give up; I miss seeing my friends, but it was worth it," she says. "I knew it would be a great opportunity to be exposed to the medical field."
The daughter of Korean immigrants—her father is a wallpaper contractor, her mother, a salesperson—who moved to the United States about 20 years ago, Kim is feeling the gentle tugs of tradition that many first-generation American children experience. But she credits them with being enormously supportive of her and her younger brother.
"They are strict, and they teach the values expected of Korean teenagers—study and then study some more," she says. "So the idea of work-study at NIH was all new to my parents. But they accept it. I love how my parents are totally there for me and let me make my own choices."
Kim, who maintains a 3.85 grade point average, is a Maryland Distinguished Scholar and serves as president of her school's Asian Club. She will attend George Washington University next year.
Pamela Stratton, chief of gynecology consult services at the NICHHD and head of the research team with whom Kim has been working, has nothing but praise for the high school student. "There's a delightful ease about her, along with exuberance and enthusiasm. She really listens and reflects before expressing herself, and she learns quite easily. We are trying to give her a broad experience, from interviewing patients to learning the basics at the bench."
In the lab, Kim's responsibilities include culturing mouse embryonic fibroblasts. "Nancy works exceedingly well in the lab," says Sujata Kelkar, who supervises her there. "She has learned the art of tissue culture and cell maintenance as quickly as an undergraduate would."
Kim also works with patient recruiters, listening as team members screen prospective subjects and role-playing, practice for screening women herself. She also helps manage the computerized patient database.
"Each patient has a unique experience with her endometriosis and pelvic pain, so extensive training in screening them is very important," says Ninet Sinaii, a predoctoral research fellow who manages the clinical trial patient database. "Nancy has been a pleasure to work with. She is bright, enthusiastic, and mature for her age."
With plans for a career in pediatrics, Kim says she has found her experiences this year invaluable. "I'm in a new environment, with all these professional people, and I feel like I've fit right in," she says. "It's really reinforced my desire to go into medicine."