Underrepresented Students Get Hands-on Lab Experience—and an Early Admission Pathway to Graduate School

Underrepresented Students Get Hands-on Lab Experience—and an Early Admission Pathway to Graduate School

FIFTEEN COLLEGE STUDENTS who participated in a 10-week research program may each have had different science interests, but as a group, they had one fundamental, unifying distinction. They were rising college juniors and seniors from racial or ethnic backgrounds underrepresented in biomedical science.

And, together, on the campus of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, they had an extraordinary opportunity to enhance their research skills and set a course for future careers.

The students performed basic research working alongside some of Mount Sinai’s top scientists and presented their work in a poster session, but they additionally learned skills beyond the lab—all part of a robust curriculum offered by the Summer Undergraduate Research Program for Underrepresented Scholars (SURP4US).

“We want to provide an environment in which each student can build upon their previous research experiences to get one step closer to being ready for graduate school,” says Hala Harony-Nicolas, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, and Neuroscience, and a member of the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment. She created and directed this year’s program and mentored one of the students.

“What is important and unique about our program is that in parallel to the hands-on research training experience on campus with our dedicated faculty, postdocs, and graduate students, our students attended seminars about the latest techniques in biomedical research and visited our core facilities,” says Dr. Harony-Nicolas.

“They also had workshops on science communication and received training on how to put together graduate school applications and prepare for their interviews, and met deans, directors of graduate school programs, faculty members, postdocs, and students at networking and social events. Finally, being part of the program also provided the students an opportunity for early admission to the Graduate School’s PhD and MD/PhD programs through the FlexGrad program—only offered to SURP4US participants.

Read on to learn more about the scientific journeys, experiences, and goals of three SURP4US students.

Naomi Calhoun, Howard University, aspires to be a physician-scientist:

  • Her science journey:

    “As I explored different avenues in my academic journey, self-discovery in my identity was instrumental as I focused on research interests. When I realized how interconnected my identities were as a Black person and a woman, I knew I had to use my unique perspective to serve as a representative for others.

“Talking to my peers, I realized how much of a luxury it is to have Black women doctors for both pediatric and gynecological care. I like the comfort that comes with this equal identity of patient and doctor.

“This became pivotal as I shifted my research focus to the intersection of women’s health and biomedical engineering with the need to provide an equitable health care experience while understanding the challenges of the current health disparities among diverse groups of women.”

  • Where she worked:

     Lab of Emily Bernstein, PhD, Professor of Oncological Sciences, and Dermatology, where she was also mentored by Anisha Cooke, a PhD candidate in Biomedical Science.

  • What she worked on:

    Designing an inducible gene-editing system to investigate mutations in the ATRX gene commonly found in neuroblastoma cells in older children, and designing a protein-degrading system to degrade the mutated gene’s protein products.

  • What she accomplished:

    “Naomi entered the program with great enthusiasm and drive and quickly assimilated herself into our laboratory,” says Dr. Bernstein. “She became familiar with techniques ranging from DNA cloning to the culturing of tumor cells. Her project involved generating cells that have incorporated tightly regulated and inducible systems whereby we can toggle the expression or mutation of the ATRX gene, which is highly mutated in pediatric cancers, at the time point(s) of our choosing.”

  • What she learned: 

    “I’ve learned resilience, that when lab experiments do not work out the way they are supposed to, I remind myself not to be discouraged. When things don’t go my way—in life or academically—I work to keep an optimistic mindset, and then I find a new way to approach the problem and keep pushing forward.”­– Naomi Calhoun

Kevin Medina, SUNY Stonybrook, aspires to be a physician-scientist:

  • His science journey:

    “After I was born at The Mount Sinai Hospital, doctors discovered that I had an immune defect early on in life. Growing up in Harlem, I knew I was different from most kids because of my immunological condition.

“I recall profound confusion about my yearly clinical immunology visit with Dr. Cunningham-Rundles [Charlotte Cunningham-Rundles, MD, PhD, the David S. Gottesman Professor of Immunology, and Professor of Medicine, and Pediatrics]. However, the one thing that was always crystal clear was her infinite curiosity about my condition and her ability to allay my parents’ fears with her wisdom about the extensive research regarding my condition. Recently, after I had decided to pursue a career in medicine, Dr. Cunningham-Rundles offered me the opportunity to spend time in her lab. I realized how interconnected medicine and research were.

“Ultimately, my curiosity to answer interesting questions regarding immunological disease is rooted in wanting to give back to the Harlem community that Mount Sinai serves. I have realized that if I am fortunate enough to achieve my goal of becoming a physician-scientist, I can advance the field of medicine by engaging in world-class research that can ultimately be translated into producing novel treatment modalities for communities like mine.”

  • Where he worked:

    Lab of Maria Curotto de Lafaille, PhD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, and a member of the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Food Allergy Institute and the Precision Immunology Institute, where he was also mentored by postdoctoral fellow Weslley Fernandes Braga, PhD.

  • What he worked on: 

    Identifying factors that regulate the production of immunoglobulin E (IgE) and immunoglobulin G4 (IgG4), important antibodies in human diseases such as food allergy and eosinophilic esophagitis.

  • What he accomplished: 

    “The SURP4US program has given us the opportunity to meet a wonderful and extremely talented undergraduate student, Kevin Medina,” says Dr. Lafaille. “He came to our group with a solid background on immunology and B lymphocytes, the cells that make antibodies. His learning curve in the lab has been steep. He performed and analyzed experiments, discussed results, and presented them in a group meeting. And clearly, he is genuinely interested in the science behind it all, so we are so happy to see him motivated and inspired.”

  • What he learned: “I have come to appreciate how creative scientists can be. I realized how quickly scientists can produce new experiments and new ideas with little information given, and it is something I have come to appreciate.” – Kevin Medina

Chinonso (Chino) Nwakama, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, aspires to be a physician-scientist:

  • His science journey: 

    “I was about 12 years old when my dad gave me Children’s Human Body Encyclopedia.

    When I stumbled on the “Nervous System” chapter, I was taken by surprise. There were fascinating sections about the parts of the brain and the amazing capability of neurons. From that point on, I knew that learning more about the brain was in my future.

“My interest in substance use and addiction began in a high school club that I was involved in that focused on making our peers aware of the harmful effects of drugs and other substances.

“When I arrived on the University of Minnesota campus, I joined labs that introduced me to the world of drug-induced plasticity—specifically how sex differences can impact drug relapse and other related phenomena.

“My long-term goal is to pursue a career as a physician-scientist where I can use my knowledge of medicine at the individual level to guide research projects focused on gaining better understanding of how drug use affects the brain. I also want to inspire other future scientists who do not often see scientists who look like them.”

  • Where he worked: 

    Lab of Jessica Ables, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, and Neuroscience, where he was also mentored by Brian Sweis, MD, PhD, Research Track Resident, Department of Psychiatry.

  • What he worked on: 

    Investigating the effects of hyperglycemia on decision-making.

  • What he accomplished: 

    “Chino worked diligently with us, studying how the ways in which the brain makes complex decisions is altered in metabolic disorders,” says Dr. Sweis. “He has been an exceptional student and has taken the lead on a project that has been a massive undertaking. He worked with a team of undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, residents, and physicians, learning how to execute large-scale animal behavioral experiments, gaining critical skills in team and project management, and learning coding and data analysis techniques, all while being exposed to clinical patient populations in parallel with his ongoing efforts in basic and translational research.”

  • What he learned: “I’ve learned that there isn’t anything I can’t do. I’ve also learned how to problem solve and to not get flustered when things go wrong and not according to plan.” – Chino Nwakama