Summer Scholars Program Turns Students into Scientists
It’s rare for a high school student to do university-level biomedical research during summer vacation. It’s even more uncommon to receive ongoing mentoring from a university research professor and be able to enter your work in national competition.
But that’s exactly what happened to Leila Abdelrahman, now a senior at Coral Reef Senior High School. In the summer of 2013, she was teamed with Richard Myers, Ph.D., lecturer in the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) High School Scholars Research Program. Since then, she has presented her research findings at an international biotechnology conference and been accepted by two of the nation’s top technology-based universities.
“UM,” she says, “made me a scientist.”
Prior to the summer program, Abdelrahman had no research laboratory experience at all.
“Most of what I knew about biology and chemistry was the surface-level information my high school textbooks offered me,” she said. “When I was accepted into the program, I remember jumping up and down, elated about the opportunity to do research. Boy, did I not know what I was in for!”
Abdelrahman recalls the first day of the program well. She and her lab partners shuffled into the room, afraid to touch something and break it.
“Dr. Myers greeted us with a warm, open smile, and gave us a paper on quorum sensing and pyoverdin production,” she said. “I had never seen so much jargon, but he led us through it.”
Myers asked the students what they could tell him about the paper. The room was silent. He offered up a clue — the fact that the word “assay” appeared in it many times. He told them that an assay was a test. Based on that new bit of knowledge, what could they tell him about the paper?
“Dr. Myers wasn’t about spoon-feeding his information,” said Abdelrahman. “He wanted us to be actively engaged and completely understand what we were going to be doing. From that first day, and over the next six weeks, we learned everything from sterile technique to how a spectrophotometer works.”
“Leila’s group put in well over 40 hours weekly on an exciting project to identify novel compounds — quorum-sensor inhibitors, or QSIs — that inhibit intercellular communication and biofilm formation in the common bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa,” said Myers. “She and her high school colleagues reported the identification of a few new sources of these molecules from native South Florida plants.”
“At one point we got stuck because the bacteria kept lysing, but he always asked us to consider all of the possible variables,” said Abdelrahman. “Over time, I realized that we were becoming more and more independent in our work, turning into true scientists ourselves.”
When the program ended in August of 2013, the students still hadn’t completed the project. Abdelrahman wanted to stay on, so she became a volunteer at the Miller School. Myers not only allowed her to stay at the lab, but also continued to be her mentor, encouraging her to push the work forward.
In late December 2013, she discovered that coffee, white tea and black tea are successful inhibitors. She entered her work in the BioGENEius Challenge, a biotechnology research competition, winning first place at the At-Large level. Last June, she advanced to the international level and presented her findings at the BIO international biotechnology conference in San Diego.
That same summer, a high school freshman, Salome Gonzales, joined the lab, and Abdelrahman took on a new role.
“She soon began working on my quorum-sensing project, and I came to realize that I was becoming her mentor,” said Abdelrahman. “She was in the same shoes I had been in only a year before. My challenge now was learning how to communicate the basics of the project in a simple, concise way.”
“This marked a big step in Leila’s personal growth, and it highlights how she matured as a scientist and a teacher,” said Myers. “She entered the lab as a naïve student, completely clueless about basic laboratory protocol and quite unready to devise an experiment. One year later, she was masterfully instructing a younger high school student about sterile technique, cell growth, how to measure with precision, and how to set up an experiment, analyze its result and write a simple narrative describing the conclusions.”
Abdelrahman is now exploring inhibition of biofilm formation using a microtiter plate assay she identified in the research literature. Research has become her passion.
“She has pursued this work, traveling to the medical school from her high school 90 minutes south, two afternoons a week, to work several hours at the bench,” said Myers. “She would come more often and stay later if she could. Leila is great about looking things up, trying to figure out concepts and protocols, and then reporting what she thinks she knows to me before jumping in. In short, she shows exceptional promise as a young biomedical research scientist and future clinician.”
“The past two years as a high school researcher at UM have been life-changing,” said Abdelrahman, who wants to major in chemical engineering or biochemistry when she goes to college. “I recently learned that I was accepted by both MIT and Caltech, and I have advanced to the interview stage for UM’s seven-year Medical Scholars Program. I could never have accomplished this without the support of Dr. Myers, the resources at the Miller School, and the HHMI Summer Program.”
More information about the HHMI High School Scholars Research Program can be found here.