HSCI internship exposes undergrads to the world of stem cell science

Derrick Reynolds, an undergraduate majoring in genetics and biotechnology at Brigham Young University, had planned to attend law school after his graduation next year. He’d even taken his law school boards and started the application process.

But after completing the 2006 HSCI Summer Undergraduate Research Internship Program, Reynolds had a change of heart. “I found I really enjoyed going to the lab each day and being involved in work that has the potential to benefit society,” says Reynolds, who did a project focusing on the differentiation of human embryonic stem cells in the lab of HSCI Scientific Co-Director David T. Scadden, MD. Now Reynolds is planning to pursue a doctoral degree in molecular biology with the goal of someday conducting stem cell research.

Reynolds is one of 34 students selected from a pool of 100 applicants who took part in the 2006 research internship program, a unique 10-week educational experience funded by private contributions. While most of the interns are Harvard students, this year nine interns from other universities and colleges joined the group, thanks to a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Stem cell ambassadors

The goal of the research internship is to encourage undergraduates to learn how to conduct research, to become better educated about the issues around stem cells, and to consider work in the field of stem cell science. According to program coordinator Heather Fleming, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, by exposing students to hands-on work in a wet lab as well as many other facets of stem cell research, the program also prepares students to be “stem cell ambassadors” who can educate others about this field and its wide range of opportunities.

Interns work full-time in a lab at one of the HSCI member institutions, conducting an independent stem cell research project under the direction of a postdoctoral or faculty mentor. At the end of the program, the students present their research findings at a scientific forum. Since the program’s inception in 2005, 56 students have worked in 25 HSCIaffiliated labs, conducting projects in diverse areas of stem cell research.

“This was an incredible learning experience that impacted me in many ways,” says Harvard student Adam Sang, of HSCI’s Summer Undergraduate Research Internship Program.

An incredible learning experience

This year, for example, biochemistry major Adam Sang, Harvard ’06, investigated signaling processes involved in the migration of primordial germline stem cells in the lab of Antony Wood, PhD, at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Vincent Center for Reproductive Biology. “This was an incredible learning experience that impacted me in many ways,” says Sang, who was pondering a career in clinical medicine but is now leaning toward medical research.

Emily Yuan, Harvard ’09, teamed up with mentor Mary Packard, PhD, in the lab of Norbert Perrimon, PhD, at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Genetics, looking at signaling pathways in drosophila (fruit fly) stem cells that may also play a role in human brain function. “This was an extraordinary opportunity. In addition to learning first-hand about stem cell science, I also got lots of support and helpful advice from my mentor,” says Yuan, a psychology major who is considering a career in medicine.

In addition to their lab work, interns also attend a weekly seminar featuring presentations and lively discussions about topics relating to stem cell science, including ethics, science journalism, policy issues, and career options. “The seminars were fascinating, and gave us a broader view of the stem cell field,” says Yuan.

Fleming notes that some of the students accepted to the program are non-science majors or have no lab experience. “This field needs talented young people across many disciplines to carry on its work into the future, not only in lab research but also in many other arenas,” she says. “This program is a long-term effort to build a solid foundation for stem cell research well into the future.”

For more information about the HSCI Summer Undergraduate Research Internship Program or ways to support this or other HSCI educational initiatives, please contact Sarah Opitz (sarah_opitz@harvard.edu).