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Next Gen biomedical internship program for high schoolers expanding
Group of 8 students in purple Emory University School of Medicine t-shirts, standing in front of a tank at the Georgia Aquarium

During the Next Gen summer internship program, high school students spend five weeks shadowing Emory researchers and genetic counselors, learning about biology and genetics in the classroom, taking field trips and getting career advice.

The Next Gen biomedical research internship program celebrated its largest class this year. The program started in 2022 and works to diversify STEM fields by providing hands-on internships for area teens.

In this summer’s program, 21 high school students spent five weeks shadowing Emory researchers and genetic counselors, learning about biology and genetics in the classroom, taking field trips and getting career advice.  

“This year, we cast a wider net as far as recruiting labs to host interns,” says Emily Allen, assistant professor of human genetics and director of the Next Gen program. “This meant the students had a wider set of experiences and there were more opportunities for them to learn from each other.”

Next Gen was organized by the Department of Human Genetics, and several interns worked in Human Genetics labs. However, this year organizers were also able to place interns in laboratories from the Departments of Microbiology and Immunology, Pathology, Cell Biology, Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, and Biology, as well as the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“If I had to boil it down to three words, it would have to be education, engagement and experience,” said Randolph Douge in a video he presented to the group at a July 6 capstone symposium. “But that would still be an understatement to what it was.”

This year's Next Gen cohort consisted of 17 students. Most commuted from their homes in the Atlanta area, while two who lived farther away — in Suwanee and Warner Robins — stayed in residence halls on Emory’s Clairmont campus.

During their time at Emory (and in one case, at Georgia Tech), students were able to gain experience with cutting-edge research techniques in the laboratory.  

“We got to slice brain organoids,” says Tristan Salamanca, who worked in the laboratory of Jimena Andersen, which studies spinal cord and motor neuron development. Brain organoids are derived from pluripotent stem cells and simulate brain development in a way that can be experimentally manipulated.

Another intern, Oyin Adebomojo, probed brain tissue samples from patients with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Working with Zach McEachin in the Department of Human Genetics, she was looking for signs of activation of cryptic exons, which have been proposed as key parts of ALS’s characteristic neurodegenerative pathology.

Adebomojo said she peppered McEachin with “so many questions.” When presenting during the capstone symposium, she reassured the audience that the tissue samples were obtained postmortem: “Don’t worry, they’re not alive.”

Intern Nahreen Shamon Ayala reported that one of her most moving and distinctive experiences this summer was visiting Atlanta’s High Museum of Art with clients of the Center for the Visually Impaired. Shamon Ayala was placed in the Georgia Tech laboratory of Ming-Fai Fong, which is developing plasticity-based interventions for visual impairment, and discovered a talent for fixing Perkins Braille typewriters.

At the concluding symposium, students said they gained valuable perspectives on both future career paths and laboratory research specifically. Interns heard from several speakers who shared details about their own career paths, ranging from roles in the laboratory or hospital to a patent lawyer or medical science liaison.

“Success is not a linear path — it’s okay to encounter detours,” says Epherata Zeleke, reflecting on advice from several speakers.

“Everything is part of the process — even the unsuccessful areas,” said Tiana Reid, who encountered some glitches while growing cells in culture in a Department of Biology laboratory.

In 2023, the Next Gen program was supported by the Avantor Foundation, the Warren-Alpert Foundation, the Schneider Foundation and department funding. The program includes an internship stipend of $2,600 as well as weekday lunches and transportation.

The department plans to offer the program again next year. More information about the application process is available on the Emory School of Medicine website; more than 200 applications were received this year.

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