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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 08, 2001

Of mice and medicine

High-school interns flex research muscles at Stanford labs

by Melanie Winderlich

With the lecture about to begin, 20 high-school students whisper to each other, barely audible above the overhead projector's hum. They poise their pens above blank sheets of notebook paper, ready to jot down important points. Suddenly, the door bursts open and a man wearing an orange gecko t-shirt, green striped shorts and Reebok sneakers sets up his slide show. It's hard to tell the teacher from the students, until the lecturer, Dr. P.J. Utz, launches into details about adaptive and innate immune systems. Then the scribbling begins.

The kids are part of an eight-week intensive internship that began June 18 at the Center for Clinical Immunology at Stanford (CCIS), an interdisciplinary research program. During the first half of the internship, students mostly observed, but they earned more independence during the second half with hands-on lab experiments. Each high school student had a choice working in one of about 40 labs, including developmental, immunodeficiencies and cancer research labs.

"The program is really amazing," said Castilleja High School senior Emily Adams, 17. "I understand lectures now, as opposed to the beginning of the internship. Going in-depth and taking a good look in one specific area is very interesting." As the program progressed, Adams said she noticed her research skills improve. Her lab studied cytomegalovirus (CMV), part of the herpes family that is transmitted from mother to child. Adams, along with 18-year-old Maggie Curnutte, measured the immune system's response to a CMV peptide.

The program was established last year by Dr. Garry Fatham, director of CCIS, and Dr. Alan Krensky, professor of pediatrics, to stimulate student interest in medical research. This year, the size of the program has doubled to 20 students. With more than 70 applications from high-school junior and seniors, CCIS and the Northern California Arthritis Foundation chose those with avid interests in science and medical research.

"We had incredibly bright kids apply, including several valedictorians," Dr. Utz said. "But we chose those students who had a genuine interest in immunology, sometimes rooted in personal experiences." According to Dr. Utz, most students gravitated towards working in labs studying incapacitating diseases and cancer because of personal encounters.

"Getting exposed to labs and seeing your research in action was really helpful," said 17-year-old Kshama Agrawal of San Jose. "How a question goes from asking to seeing it happen, either with negative or positive results, is amazing."

The Silver Creek resident worked in the oncology section, where her lab traced the leukemia gene by transplanting mice bone marrow. She used the green fluorescent protein, GFP, to visually track where, when and how the disease spreads with an ultraviolet microscope.

Kshama and her 19 peers all received stipends, about $1,500 for the summer, in addition to weekly lunches and lectures.

Dr. Utz and Lu Em Wellhausen, Immunology & Rheumatology and CCIS manager, have tried to mix both seriousness and humor in the rigorous program. Just prior to one pizza lunch, Dr. Utz showed disturbing slides to demonstrate the effects of severe rheumatoid arthritis, scleraoderma and lupus. He joked about eating leftover pizza since everyone else would be nauseous in the bathrooms. His real motive to show bodily disfigurements caused by autoimmune diseases, however, was to remind the students about the emotional as well as physical effects on patients.

"I want to make sure all you guys see these pictures," he told the group. "Most of you are working with test tubes and animals and not getting the real feel of medicine."

Dr. Utz and Wellhausen spoke about the benefits of "translational science," a term used to link medical research performed in labs with ailing patients in clinics. When both aspects of medicine combine, the result is a fresh perspective to finding a cure for a long-standing disease. Some students became fascinated by the human side of medicine after they visited the clinic, which motivated them to become active lab contributors.

Dr. Utz participated in a similar program in 1985 at Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, NY, with seven other students. Two of the eight students now have labs with immunology focuses. Dr. Utz said the program "made a profound difference and (I) wouldn't be here without it." In addition to lab training and lectures, students researched their own medical topics and presented their findings to their peers, faculty and family. The presentations were a chance for students to learn about topics their peers had researched throughout the summer.

Wellhausen said CCIS's goal is to maintain student interest in medical research. Both she and Dr. Utz want to see the program evolve to the point where individual labs take the same students for consecutive summers. They hope the high school students will continue at CCIS long term, first as college students with majors related to medical research, then as interns, and finally, researchers at CCIS. At the very least, Dr. Utz and Wellhausen hope to follow the students' academic development beyond high school. A mentorship program might evolve from the CCIS internship, so the high school students of today may become the immunology researchers of tomorrow.

"It's important to educate, because it's your payback to society," Wellhausen said. "When we are old, maybe some of these kids will come up with a cure for us."


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