Summer program helps diverse group of undergrads explore science careers

Photo: Visual Art Services

Emily Abdoler, a junior at William Jewell College, says her experience working in the lab of genetics professor Richard Myers is reinforcing her desire to pursue a graduate degree and a career in science.

Call it the summer camp approach to graduate school recruiting. During the Stanford Summer Research Program, now in its fifth week, students from around the world go on a scavenger hunt through San Francisco, a kayaking trip in Monterey Bay and a sushi-eating excursion in Palo Alto.

Oh, and they also work full-time in a biomedical research lab, hone their presentation skills and attend weekly seminars. All while sharing a frat house – and its single bathroom – with 21 fellow undergraduates.

The eight-week program attracts students who, because of their diverse culture, class, race, ethnicity, experiences, skills or interests, would bring diversity to graduate study in biomedical sciences.

“It’s just like Stanford’s version of ‘The Real World,’ except we don’t have the little confessional booth,” said Arizona State University senior Troy McEachron, referring to the seminal MTV reality show.

He pointed out that of this year’s 22 participants, one is from India, two are from Trinidad, one is from Puerto Rico and one is from Jamaica. “You have people from such diverse backgrounds and then you just throw them together in this frat house, so it’s crazy, because there’s no drama – everyone gets along.”

That’s just as well since McEachron has other things on his mind. Working in an oncology lab under assistant professor Dean Felsher, MD, PhD, he’s tracing the role of a certain cancer-causing gene in cell death. His experience here has already sold him on Stanford for graduate school.

“I have postdocs treating me as a peer; every grad student I’ve talked to here is just really happy and the faculty is extremely accessible,” he explained.

SSRP director Kimberly Griffin said the goals of the program include giving students another look at Stanford for graduate school, but are broader than that. Through intensive full-time lab work, seminars related to graduate school preparation, mentoring and fun excursions, the program encourages diverse students to pursue careers in science and to network with fellow students.

“So often, our learning interests relate to our own personal experiences. The more people we have with different personal experiences forming questions, the better our science is going to be, and the more we’re going to be able to help address the needs of all communities,” Griffin said.

Now in its 12th year, the program drew around 250 applications for this summer, she said, mainly from sophomore and junior undergraduates.

Once the difficult selection process is finished, Griffin matches each student to a research advisor based on the student’s interests. Emily Abdoler, a junior at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., credits Griffin’s judgment in assigning her to the lab of genetics professor Richard Myers, PhD.

“My interest is genetic disease and he deals a lot with human disease and the human genome, so it seemed like a perfect match to me,” Abdoler said.

She is studying the function of a protein thought to be involved in forming synapses in the brain, but she’s also learning what a science career is like.

“I’ve gotten a better sense of what grad school is all about and what postdoctoral fellowships are all about, so it’s really clarified my pathway for the next several years and showed me that it’s as fun as I thought it would be,” Abdoler said.

McEachron agrees. “People here actually have fun,” he said. “The stereotype of a scientist is glasses, pocket protector, lab coat all the time, but it’s just so far from what it’s actually like. This place provides you with a balance.”

Outside of the lab, participants meet each week with program assistants, postdocs and graduate students who help small groups of students navigate the program. During the meetings the students talk about the research they’ve done so far, and get tips from the program assistant. This helps prepare them for a final poster presentation and talk on their research.

The students have also learned a lot outside of their structured activities, Abdoler and McEachron noted. “You learn so much about different people and different customs and traditions as far as people’s way of life and people’s way of thinking, and we’re actually a pretty close-knit group,” McEachron said.

This diversity was one of the things that attracted her to the program, Abdoler said. “We just never stop talking when we’re together because we have so much to share and ideas to exchange,” she said.

Other summer programs

The Stanford Summer Research Program is just one of the summer courses at the medical center that encourage diversity in the fields of science and medicine. Others include:

Health Careers Opportunity Program – a six-week residential program for 45 undergraduates from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Students are exposed to critical thinking and medical research in addition to hands-on experience in the anatomy lab and suturing clinic. They also learn about applying to medical school.

Stanford Medical Youth Science Program – a five-week residential program for 24 low-income high school students from northern and central California. They participate in lectures and workshops in the basic sciences as well as public health and preventive medicine. In addition, they work at Stanford’s hospitals and receive help with the college application process.