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Scientific inspiration
Program gives teens chance to work in top research labs at Stanford
Linda Berlin, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, September 14, 2001
2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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Nakeila Pickrom bends over a tray containing dozens of small vials. A purple, tie-dye bandanna holds her hair back, and rubber gloves protect her hands as she conducts an experiment intended to purify DNA, extracting protein from each sample.

Pickrom, an 18-year-old from East Palo Alto, is one of 20 students participating in an eight-week internship at Stanford University's Center for Clinical Sciences Research, where laboratories tackle the toughest problems in immunology research today. The students receive a $1,500 stipend and free parking near the immunology lab on campus.

The Peninsula high school students are assigned to mentors in 13 labs and work helping scientists discover medical treatments through hands-on experiments. They learn about bone marrow transplants, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, immunodeficiency disorders, AIDS, pediatrics and antigen processing.

One high school graduate cowrote an article that will be published this fall in a prominent international peer-reviewed journal - an unheard-of accomplishment for a teenager, even a brainy one.

"These kids are doing an unbelievable job," said Dr. C. Garrison Fathman, director of the Center for Clinical Immunology at Stanford. Fatham, a rheumatologist, said he hopes to inspire the students to pursue clinical research, countering a trend of doctors moving into clinical practice rather than research. "One of the goals of the summer program is to introduce the best and the brightest of the Peninsula high school students to the excitement and allure of clinical immunology."

In its second year, the internship has doubled its enrollment, and is paid for with private donations and through the Northern California Arthritis Foundation in San Francisco, which sponsored five of the students.

This year, competition for the 20 spaces was fierce. Dr. P. J. Utz, summer internship program director, turned away many students and felt awful about it.

"These kids are the cream of the crop," he said.

He said he wants to keep the internship small enough that it remains a high- quality experience, so only the best students were accepted from the 70 who applied, and three-quarters of this summer's participants were girls.

To be accepted, students must have had at least one year of high school biology and chemistry, plus an A grade-point average and stellar test scores. A letter of recommendation is also required.

Each applicant also had to write an essay explaining why they wanted to be in the program and what lab they preferred to work in. Many of the students heard about the internship from their high school biology teachers. Stanford tried to select a mix of students from different districts at private and public schools.

The students must study from a college textbook, "Immunology, An Illustrated Outline, 3rd Edition," and attend weekly lectures.

Their mentors, however, are in the laboratory. They work side-by-side with these scientists, some of whom are graduate students and postdoctoral candidates, and are treated as equals.

There is an emphasis on collaboration in a team setting. Self-confidence develops among these students over the two-month training. They have gone on field trips to other labs on campus to view glowing mice and robots that print DNA microarrays, and have watched cells interact in real time on video.

Some of the teenagers had never considered a career in medicine until now. "I feel really lucky (to be here). The hot topics in medicine are coming up in immunology," said Emily Adams, 17, of Los Altos, who will be a senior this fall at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, where she plans to take advanced- placement biology and organic chemistry. "Now I'm beginning to ask the right questions." Before the summer internship, she had no idea what to expect: "I came in like a blank slate."

Inspired by what she's learning, Adams is now considering a medical career as she continues researching the cytomegalovirus, experimenting with the ELISA test to check for antibodies in blood. She plans to continue working in the lab this fall for eight to 10 hours each week while attending high school.

"I feel like I've learned so much that I don't want to forget," she said.

Adams, like many of the students, felt intimidated when she first arrived at Stanford. But after several weeks of working with mentor Pam Stepick, things have changed. The lab lingo is beginning to make sense, and she understands experiment procedures.

"I was afraid I would blow up the lab," confided Cecilia Yen, 17, of San Francisco, who has performed several experiments in transcriptional regulation of CD-5 - the surface marker on T and B cells. Toward the end of the internship, Yen was doing experiments on her own.

Nakeila Pickrom said a lab technician trained her and described how mistakes are just part of learning. It made her feel more at ease. She has since done several DNA experiments by herself. This fall, Pickrom will be a pre-med student at Tufts University.

For Maggie Curnutte, 18, of Redwood City, being in the lab is something that she has been comfortable with since eighth grade, but the immunology lab a Stanford is completely different.

"All the projects I've done in the past, you pretty much know the results you're going to get. In this lab, I don't know what the results are going to be. You have some idea of where it's going to go, but you have a lot more variables."

Curnutte is doing asthma research and herpes studies, measuring the immune system response to the virus, especially among pregnant women with a first- time infection and in immune-compromised individuals, such as patients with AIDS. What's most exciting for these students is to actually see how their lab work translates into improving pharmaceuticals to treat patients or advancing techniques for diagnosis and treatment.

Derek Fong of Los Altos helped coauthor a paper that will soon be published in a leading international journal. He worked with Stanford scientists to create a new way of viewing autoantigens, the targets of immune response, for patients with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. The technology uses one slide that contains thousands of reactivities to autoantigens. Reading the slide takes an entire day.

But it's a huge advance over the old technology - it took months to view thousands of reactivities, because they're usually done one per slide. Stanford has applied for a patent on the technique. They hope it will lead to more patient-specific therapy, said Utz.

Fong helped with the project's computer programming, data analysis and with cellular biology assays, returning for a second summer to finish the work. He will be a freshman at Yale University this fall.

"To be on a paper of this magnitude is unheard of," Utz said. "He was working with absolute world-class scientists, and he really helped."

Faraaz Chekeni, 19, a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley,

also returned to the lab for a second summer to do more research on the mitochondria localization signal of protein SRP-68.

"Things don't always work as they should," Chekeni, who is from Palo Alto, said. "There's a lot more to be studied in immunology, that's why this is a particularly rewarding experience."

What the center is hoping to teach these students is that immunology cuts across several medical specialties, because so many diseases have common problems. There are more similarities among rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and multiple sclerosis than there are differences, Fathman said, though patients develop these illnesses in different ways.

Next year, the program will integrate other fields of study, including computer science and engineering, to show the links among these fields, along with surgery and medicine. "Apart, you have nothing; together, you can solve huge problems in medical science," Utz said.

Toward the end of the internship, each student must do a poster presentation for Stanford faculty and parents - in front of an audience of 125.

"There was such an energy buzz. It was just amazing," said Lu Em Wellhausen,

manager of Immunology & Rheumatology and the Center for Clinical Immunology at Stanford. "They really did pick it up."

E-mail comments to penfriday@sfchronicle.com.

2001 San Francisco Chronicle   Page 1