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Stanford Report, July 25, 2001
High school students receive hands-on experience in immunology research


Recent high school graduate Maggie Curnutte knows her passion for science isn't shared by everyone. “My lab partner in A.P. Biology always laughed at the way I got excited about things in class,” said Curnutte, who attended Notre Dame High School in Belmont. “When we dissected a fetal pig in class, she was the one to read the textbook and I was the one to anxiously explore.”

This summer, Curnette finds herself surrounded by a group of teenagers who share her love of scientific exploration. She is one of 20 participants in a high school internship program sponsored by the Center for Clinical Immunology at Stanford, or CCIS – an interdisciplinary research program involving 70 faculty members. The internship program was the brainchild of Garry Fathman, MD, professor of medicine and director of CCIS, and Alan Krensky, MD, professor of pediatrics. The program is designed to expose science-minded high school juniors and seniors to the world of medical research.

“We wanted to show the excitement of clinical immunology laboratory work and provide the students with the opportunity to work at a world-class medical center,” said Fathman, who brought the first group of interns to CCIS last summer. He and P.J. Utz, MD, assistant professor of medi-cine and director of the program, sought out students who excelled in science and would thrive in the highly charged lab environment; they selected this year's participants from a pool of nearly 70 applicants.

(Left to right) Emily Adams and Maggie Curnette are among the 20 local high school students who are gaining research experience through a summer program at the Center for Clinical Immunology at Stanford.
photo: VAS

The eight-week program, which began June 18, is intensive and hands-on; the itinerary features lab training, lab work, immunology mini-courses, lectures from CCIS faculty members and field trips throughout the medical center. Each student is assigned to a specific lab within CCIS and works alongside a postdoctoral fellow or immunology graduate student on a specific project. The interns don't receive grades for their work, but they will hold a poster session for family, friends and faculty at the end of the program.

The students are working on a wide array of projects, reflecting the broad range of research areas that fall under the clinical immunology umbrella. Curnutte and Emily Adams, a senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, wound up in the lab of David Lewis, MD, associate professor of pediatrics. The two students are studying cytomegalovirus (CMV), a member of the herpes family that can be transferred from mother to child during pregnancy or birth. Curnutte is using a test called the ELI-spot assay to measure the number of T cells – immune system cells that attack foreign invaders – activated by a specific peptide of the CMV. Depending on the T cells' reaction, this peptide could eventually be used to make a vaccine for CMV.

Intern Derek Fong is working jointly in the labs of Utz and Larry Steinman, MD, professor of neurology and neurological sciences. Fong, a recent graduate of Mountain View High School, is studying autoimmune diseases – such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis – and constructing protein microarrays that enable researchers to simultaneously monitor thousands of proteins. Fong uses a special robot to print the arrays and helps analyze the data with a scanner and computer. The lab's research could eventually be used to design patient-specific therapies for the treatment of arthritis and MS.

Fong participated in last year's program and enjoyed his experience so much that he continued working during the school year and then returned for the program this summer. His contributions to the lab are reflected in a high-profile paper in which Fong is listed as a co-author. Utz said serving as an author of a scientific paper is an amazing accomplishment for a high-school student, and it exemplifies the students' progression throughout the program.

“The students go from not knowing how to hold a pipette to conducting fairly complex experiments on their own,” said Utz, adding that the most rewarding part of the program is seeing the students learn so quickly. “It's gratifying to see their eyes light up when they get something.”

The students are eager to make contributions to their labs. “At first you come in and don't know much; you almost feel like dead weight,” said Curnette, who will attend Pomona College this fall. “But my goal before I leave is to provide more help and make things in my lab run more efficiently.”

Utz hopes Curnutte and the other interns will continue making contributions to their labs and return to CCIS – in some capacity – as Fong and several other former interns have. He also hopes the program will succeed in making a positive impact on the students' educational and career choices. “The proof will be in the pudding,” said Utz, who pursued a career in immunology as a result of attending a similar program as a college student. “Five to 10 years from now we'll see how many of our students have gone on to medical school or have worked in research labs in college.”

The internship program is co-sponsored by the Northern California Arthritis Foundation, which is funding five George Hagan Summer Science Fellows. More information about this and other CCIS programs can be found at