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July 22, 2011

Howard Hughes Medical Institute: Grooming future scientists for 12 years at ULM

If this had been any other summer then high school seniors, Cydnie Cooper of Block High School in Jonesboro, Mallory Keene of Ouachita Parish High School and Canesha Moore of Bastrop High School, might have spent the month of June hanging out with friends, working at a part-time job or relaxing with family.

Instead, they joined a cadre of other scientifically inclined students for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Pre-College Research Program, now in its 11th year.

The Institute ran from June 5 – 30, with students doing lab work every day in the ULM Chemistry and Natural Sciences Building and Garrett Hall, rotating through four different research experiences over the four-week period.

On a recent sweltering morning, the students were clustered in groups of threes and fours in a small lab, extracting DNA from a soy tortilla chip to see if it had been genetically modified.

At the end of the week, the students would debate the pros and cons of genetic engineering

"You need to grind it up," said Dennis Bell, one of eight ULM faculty members leading the HHMI program events, as he explained how the students checked for the appropriate genetic markers.

"It looks like spinach," replied Cooper, with a chuckle.

"By the end of the four weeks, they will have learned about molecular biology, the importance of protein, bioinformatics, as well as genetically modified organisms ... These are a great group of students, and by the time they finish, they will have learned many valuable things," Bell explained.

Cooper, Keene and Moore were three of more than 140 of Louisiana's top students who competed for 54 slots this year in a program that provides hands-on research under the tutelege of real-world university professors.

The Institute was created years ago with two objectives in mind, according to Professor of Biology Dr. Ann Findley.

The first objective is to aid students in making an informed decision about their course of study once they come to a university setting.

The second is to encourage students with an interest in the sciences to consider career opportunities beyond college.

The students who are chosen earn three hours of college credit, a $1000 stipend, and, if they live farther than 30 miles from campus, free housing and meals.

Peer-mentors stayed with the students in the dorms and also receive a stipend, plus free housing.

In addition to the student participants, high school biology teachers are selected to participate.

In order to maximize the program's outreach, teachers also gain access to equipment trunks assembled for the purpose of carrying the research projects to their home institutions to use in their classrooms.

Jeremy Harmson, a recent ULM M.S. biology graduate, was tapped as an instructor for the program this year after having served as the teaching assistant for the ULM freshman phage genomics laboratory course, co-directed by Drs. Findley and Chris Gissendanner, for the last several years.

But in late June, it was polymerase reactions, not phages, that preoccupied Harmson as he talked with the students about how high heat unfolds or "denatures" a protein.

As he did, it was easy to see how engaged the budding scientists were in their last week of lab work.

"This was my favorite week," said Victoria Bamburg of Calhoun, a senior at the Louisiana School for Math Science and Art in Natchitoches, who said she intends to major in biology when she starts college.

"I appreciate all the examples of real-life uses," said Josh Strickland of Franklin Parish High School. "Especially in the medical field, which is what I'm interested in."

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education Program at ULM has received continuous support from HHMI since 2000 in excess of $3 million.

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