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NextGen gives high school students a peek at biomedical research
group of male and female high school students

The inaugural NextGen biomedical internship cohort included (front row, from left) Mia Burns, Sophie Lee, Kadin Russell and Cheyenne George; (back row, from left) Will Hammond, Joy Okonji, Sipora Deko, Layo Ogunleye, Dhakiya Knights, Estela Lozier, Micah George and Kini Bibai.

A dozen high school students, mostly from Atlanta-area schools, spent five weeks of their summer shadowing Emory researchers and genetic counselors in Emory School of Medicine’s Department of Human Genetics. The biomedically oriented internship program is called NextGen and was offered for the first time this summer.

“I like my lab because they give me responsibilities,” said high school junior Dhakiya Knights, who was an intern in neuroscientist Andrew Escayg’s lab. “They say ‘You can run a gel.’ I can do what? It was different from what I expected, but I enjoyed it.”

A similar program (the six-week Summer Scholars Research Program) has been offered through Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University since 2001.

“I have always loved my job, but this summer was above and beyond,” Emory geneticist Emily Allen said at a July 7 symposium when the NextGen interns presented on their research or a biomedical topic of their choice. “The 12 students who were here were just amazing.”

Allen organized the interns’ daily activities, which included time with researchers, lectures on biology and genetics, and field trips such as visits to Emory National Primate Research Center and Microsoft Technology Center.

A department committee chose the 12 NextGen interns from a group of more than 50 applicants. NextGen focuses on historically underrepresented minorities; the group consisted of 11 African American students and one Latina. Eleven students were female and one was male.

Most of the students commuted from their homes in the Atlanta area, while two stayed in dorm rooms on Emory’s Clairmont campus. One dorm-dwelling intern was from Minnesota, while the other sought to avoid a long commute from Newton County.

“The NextGen program went so well that in the future, we’d like to explore whether we can offer it to high school students from across the country,” says human genetics department chair Peng Jin.

Six labs within the Department of Human Genetics hosted interns, as well as Gary Bassell’s lab in the Department of Cell Biology.

A glimpse of possible future careers

Interns were matched with labs corresponding to their career goals, which spanned a wide range of fields. Sophie Lee, for example, had expressed an interest in neurosurgery and was able to meet scientists attempting to model human brain development in cultured “assembloids.” She gained experience in Bassell’s lab growing induced pluripotent stem cell–derived neurons under the guidance of postdoctoral fellow Nisha Raj.

In contrast, Kadin Russell, a high school junior from Cobb County, was leaning toward studying nursing. NextGen allowed her to get more clinically relevant experience by observing several genetic counselors in the Lysosomal Storage Disorders/Genetic Clinical Trial Center.

This confirmed her earlier interest, Russell says. But would she consider becoming a genetic counselor? “Maybe.”

Kini Bibai, who worked with developmental biologist Tamara Caspary and colleagues, learned how to prepare brightly stained skeletons of mice with altered development. Primary cilia are the focus of Caspary’s lab: they are tiny hair- or antenna-like structures that help cells respond to signals during development.

She and fellow intern Estela Lozier gave a presentation in which they argued that high school students should be taught about primary cilia, which they hadn’t learned about in biology class. Bibai says her summer experience reoriented her interests, in that she was previously more aware of careers connected with math or statistics.

“It showed me something I can really do,” Bibai says. “It’s not so impossible.”

The program (a paid internship of $2,000) was supported by the Avantor Foundation and through department funding. The department plans to offer the program again next year.

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