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    Passing the torch

    St. Jude mentoring opportunities inspire many high school and college students to consider careers in science and medicine.

    The last thing most high school and college students want to do in the summer is more school work. But instead of non-stop texting, lounging by the pool or playing video games, some of the nation’s brightest students spend each summer with some of the world’s hardest working researchers in labs at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

    Through two programs—The Summer for Sickle Cell Science Program and the Pediatric Oncology Education (POE) program—students experience mentoring opportunities beyond measure. The mentors act as advisers, guides and trusted counselors and gain dedicated student scientists in return.

    Introducing teens to research

    The Summer for Sickle Cell Science Program brings Memphis-area high school students into St. Jude science, research and medical environments for eight weeks. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the program gives teens hands-on experience that could inspire them to pursue science or medical-related careers.

    St. Jude invites three highly qualified students with diverse backgrounds and interests into the program each summer.

    “The recruitment and training of the next generation of scientists is a critical goal of the Summer for Sickle Cell Science Program,” says Charlotte Hoyle, the program’s coordinator. “Our program allows St. Jude to attract, encourage, and mentor talented scholars. These students are given the opportunity at age 18 to go into labs with PhDs, MDs and to work with other committed employees.”

    The program exposes students to researchers working in laboratories so they can gain experience that could cultivate continued interest in research related to sickle cell disease. The interns also develop altruistic projects with the goal of “giving back” to children with sickle cell disease. Such projects have included violin lessons, sickle cell soccer camps and blood drives to coincide with September’s National Sickle Cell Awareness Month.

    “Each student has had a phenomenal experience,” says Russell Ware, MD, PhD, Hematology chair. “The laboratory mentors and staff also have enjoyed having these great students spend their summers working in the laboratory. My own personal interactions with the students have been highly positive. They are bright, motivated and eager to learn. In the laboratory setting, they demonstrate a keen intellect and quickly grasp ideas.”

    Other St. Jude faculty members say that they benefit from interacting with the students.

    “Students coming into the sickle cell program bring great enthusiasm and energy to the projects,” says Elaine Tuomanen, MD, Infectious Diseases chair. “They take on new directions and push the limits of existing dogma. The interaction in the lab is really dynamic.”

    Beyond the college campus

    Funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, the POE Program allows students who are preparing for careers in biomedical sciences, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing and related areas to gain biomedical and oncology research experience.

    “A number of outstanding institutions have summer internship programs, but ours is the only program focused on pediatric oncology,” says Suzanne Gronemeyer, PhD, POE Program director.

    POE students interact with St. Jude scientists, physicians and postdoctoral fellows. They are matched with faculty mentors who share their research interests, and they participate in the mentors’ ongoing research projects. The 2008 class of 48 was selected from more than 300 applicants and represented 42 schools in 26 states and the District of Columbia.

    “Experiences such as the POE Program can make a tremendous difference in a student’s long-term career path,” Gronemeyer says. “It can open a lot of doors from getting a better post-grad experience such as medical or graduate school to choosing a residency program.” Historically, 85 to 90 percent of St. Jude POE students have earned doctoral degrees.

    To qualify for the 11-week program, a student must be at least a sophomore in college and have excellent grades and recommendations. St. Jude faculty mentors then select students for their labs from the pool of qualified applicants.

    POE and other summer students also attend a “Lunch and Learn” series, which offers networking and educational opportunities. Students can speak face-to-face with top researchers and with other students.

    “I had the opportunity early in my career to do summer internships, and it made all the difference in my career path,” Gronemeyer says. “I also had opportunities through the people I met during those internships. Former POEs frequently write to me saying they run into each other throughout the country, which is positive reinforcement of the program.”

    At the end of their appointments, participants give presentations on their research projects. They also submit reports on their research projects written in the style of specific journals in which their mentors publish.

    The future of research

    “We are grooming some of the next generation of pediatric oncologists, cancer researchers and cancer care providers,” Gronemeyer says. “While most POEs have become physicians, others have obtained professional degrees such as nurse practitioner or medical physicist. They become highly accomplished people whom we need more of in this country.”

    Hoyle sees the same in her interns.

    “These exciting summers are life changing for the interns, as well as for the employees who work with them,” she says. “Everyone’s a winner as they work together—fighting to cure children with
    catastrophic diseases.”

    Advice for Budding Scientists

    No magic formula applies to all students, but here are some initial steps for anyone who is considering a science or medical-related career. Russell Ware, MD, PhD, Hematology chair, offers the following tips:

    First, take several science classes to determine your interests and abilities.

    Second, apply yourself scholastically, since good grades provide evidence of your commitment to this kind of career.

    Third, show an interest—talk with your guidance counselor, science teachers and others who might help you later on with advice and letters of recommendation.

    Fourth, work on communication skills; these skills are critical in science and are often overlooked by students.

    Finally, get active in pursuing your dream.

    Reprinted from Promise Autumn 2008

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