Beginners Get Into Science at NCI
As the largest institute within the world's largest biomedical research institution, NCI offers premier employment to oncology professionals. But this opportunity isn't limited to the experts; there's also room for less experienced people to become involved at NCI, and it's open to people from high school through graduate programs.
The Student and Teacher Program is offered to high school students in Montgomery County, Md., who are attracted to biomedical research, as well as to middle and high school teachers who want to brush up on their lab skills or share their first-hand experiences with students. The program, cosponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Science Education and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, enrolled 21 high school students and 9 teachers last year.
Shayda Eskandary is one of the participants. She teaches introductory and advanced biology at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., and worked for two summers in Dr. Sankar Adhya's lab, which focuses on the regulation of gene transcription, learning to transfer genes between different strains of bacteria by using viruses, a process known as transduction. "What really stood out to me is that science takes a long time. Nothing is instantaneous," she says, "so it really gives you an appreciation for hard work." Now, when Ms. Eskandary works with her students, she is able to show them the proper techniques for keeping their experiments sterile and for documenting their methods - two important aspects of the scientific process that she didn't fully appreciate before her time at NCI.
For college students, NCI runs the Introduction to Cancer Research Careers (ICRC) Program, led by Dr. Teresa Estrada and Leon Espinoza of NCI's Office of Workforce Development. Students from underrepresented and/or financially disadvantaged backgrounds apply each year for the opportunity to visit NCI and interview for internships. Approximately 20 candidates are chosen through a competitive review process conducted by intramural investigators.
"ICRC gives diverse students a window into what a career in science could be like, while also giving investigators a chance to work with interns who bring in new perspectives," says Dr. Estrada. "All students in the program want to become scientists, and NCI helps them fill in the details on their maps of how to get there." She adds that because all of the ICRC interns have some prior research experience, they're able to hit the ground running once they are assigned to an investigator and can make significant contributions to the projects.
"They're testing things at NCI that we only hear about back home, but here, we would actually get to be a part of that research," adds Carmella Kahn, an undergraduate studying microbiology at the University of Arizona who applied to the ICRC program this year. She will be joining the Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities this summer to work with Dr. Roland Garcia. Ms. Kahn's goal is to learn how NCI is addressing the unequal burden of cancer and to gain tools that she can use for the work she does with the Navajo Nation, of which she is a member.
These training programs also are helpful for the researchers in the labs who host the students. Dr. Daniel McVicar has had many summer interns over the years in his lab at NCI-Frederick - some of whom are now pursuing science or medical careers - and he says that in addition to helping with the research projects, the programs give his permanent staff valuable experience, too. "My postdocs really like having the interns around," he says. "The arrangement allows their productivity to go up and also provides the supervisory experience that will help them in their next career move."
By Brittany Moya del Pino