JJ Vance Memorial Summer Internship Becomes NIH-Funded Program

Jeffery M. Vance, M.D., Ph.D., professor of human genetics and neurology and Director of the Center for Genomic Education and Outreach at the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics, received a $500,000 five-year summer training grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to expand the annual JJ Vance Memorial Summer Internship in Biological and Computational Sciences, a program that provides high school students with the unique opportunity to be directly involved in scientific research.

Dr. Vance and Margaret A. Pericak-Vance, Ph.D., Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Professor of Human Genomics and Director of the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics, established the JJ Vance internship in 2002 at Duke University in memory of their son, Jeffery Joseph (JJ). They relocated the program to the John P. Hussman Institute in 2009, where it has continued to grow every summer. In the program’s inaugural year at the University of Miami, six students applied for five available positions. By 2014, 63 students from 30 South Florida high schools applied for 11 positions. The grant will now give 12 students the opportunity to participate in the program each year.

“The rising trajectory of applicants demonstrates the strong interest of young students for such an established program in Miami, where such opportunities are scarce,” said Dr. Vance. “With this grant, we will have the stability that we need to increase the number of students that we can enroll in the program, which will better serve our community.”

“Over the past five years, the JJ Vance internship has become a force for exposing our local high school students to career opportunities in biomedical sciences,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and CEO of the University of Miami Health System. “We are proud to continue to provide this opportunity for high school students at the Miller School of Medicine.”

The eight-week summer program incorporates each student into a John P. Hussman Institute faculty member’s working research group. The students gain hands-on research experience assisting their mentors with ongoing projects such as the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson disease, autism, hearing loss, and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. They conduct experiments under the supervision of their John P. Hussman Institute mentors, and gain confidence in their abilities as they progress to work on complicated tasks. The mentors instruct the students on how to get ideas for research, how to conduct the research, and the proper procedures for getting the scientific aims accomplished. At the end of the program, the students present and share their results at a research luncheon attended by their mentors, friends, family members, high school teachers, and fellow interns.

“We strive to create a passion for science,” said Dr. Pericak-Vance, a significant contributor for the grant. “The JJ Vance internship enables high school students to not only experience the creativity of science, but to understand what career steps it takes them to get there.”

“This program has been so successful because it is able to capture and engage young talent right at the point when they are beginning to think seriously about the types of careers they would like to pursue,” said Derek Dykxhoorn, Ph.D., associate professor of human genetics and microbiology and immunology, co-director of the Center for Molecular Genetics at the John P. Hussman Institute, and mentor for the JJ Vance internship. “It helps them to see science as something that goes far beyond what they can learn from a textbook.”

Approximately 80 percent of the former Miami participants have gone on to choose science majors in college, and many of them credit the internship for playing an integral role in their decision to pursue science careers.

Twenty John P. Hussman Institute faculty members are included in the internship’s mentor pool. Andrea Pace-Gonzalez, manager of research support, will serve as the program coordinator for the grant. Aaron Uhlenberg, web developer and communications manager, will serve as the recruitment manager.

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