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Summer Program Collaboration Introduced Biomedical Sciences to Trainees

Cynthia Xiao (left), Harper Kolehmainen (middle), and Galvin Li (right) are among various undergraduate and graduate students who received hands-on research experience in the Summer Research Scholars program and Biostatistics Internship collaboration.

The Summer Research Scholars (SRS) program in the College of Graduate Health Sciences and the Biostatistics Internship in the Department of Preventive Medicine provided research experience to qualified undergraduate and graduate students.

In the SRS program, accepted undergraduate students receive hands-on research experience in the biomedical sciences fields at UTHSC research laboratories. Students are matched with UTHSC faculty in this eight-week paid internship program held in June and July. It includes opportunities to enhance skills in biomedical information retrieval, participate in a scientific presentation workshop and a scientific abstract writing workshop, strengthen communication skills in biomedical sciences, and access research opportunities in biomedical engineering, epidemiology, health outcomes and policy research, integrated biomedical sciences, nursing science, and pharmaceutical sciences. This year, 13 students participated in the SRS program.

“There are exciting ways one can contribute to health care that aren’t hands-on patient care. Research is the engine that drives health care,” said Isaac Donkor, PhD, professor and associate dean of Student Affairs, and director of the SRS program in the College of Graduate Health Sciences. “The goal of the program is for the students to know what biomedical research is about and that with a PhD in a health science discipline, one can enter various career fields and contribute significantly to health care.”

The Biostatistics Internship program, established in 2016, provides training to undergraduate and graduate students in which interns work with faculty members in the department on a statistical project. The internship may be paid or for credit toward the student’s institution depending on institutional policies, student, and faculty mentor preference.

The SRS program collaborated with the Biostatistics Internship program and Colorado State University, to provide mentoring in research careers at both institutions.

The programs hosted a half-day research symposium for students to present their summer projects.

At the end of the programs, students presented their work in a half-day symposium on the UTHSC Memphis campus and were offered an opportunity to present their research at a community research exhibition at the Lichterman Nature Center in partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis STEM in Medicine Ecosystem, and Rhodes College.

“I’m very excited and would like to do more of this in the future. I am hoping it is also a way for us to reach out to the broader community,” said Saunak Sen, PhD, professor and division chief of Biostatistics in the Department of Preventive Medicine. “It is good for the students, their parents, and for us as researchers to have a presence out there. And as a publicly funded institution, I think it’s an obligation for us to present to those who are funding our work, outside of a research paper.”

The community research exhibition, organized by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in partnership with Memphis STEM in Medicine Ecosystem, Rhodes College, and UTHSC, featured presentations from high school and college students, and students in the SRS program and Biostatistics Internship.

Three students, Galvin Li, Harper Kolehmainen, and Cynthia Xiao, presented posters at the Lichterman Nature Center about the research they conducted during the summer programs at UTHSC.

“The community funds our institution and our research ultimately should benefit it, so it’s important to connect with and share our work with the public,” said Li, now a first-year student in the College of Medicine. “Presenting at the exhibition turned out to be quite enjoyable, since it allowed me to experience the impact of our research.”

Li, an intern in the SRS program, presented research he conducted with the Department of Preventive Medicine about the association of melanoma and sex steroid hormone levels.

“We used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey gathering laboratory and demographics data for 12,005 participants over five cycles and ran Cox and Logistic Regression to see what factors were associated,” said Li. “We found that sex hormone levels were associated with melanoma, but how they were associated with melanoma differed between men and women. In women, higher testosterone levels were associated with lower odds of melanoma and in men we didn’t detect any significant association. One of the main areas in which this research will be helpful, is studying how exogenous hormone use might impact melanoma risk.”

Kolehmainen, a junior studying computer science at Rhodes College, said as a Biostatistics intern, it was cultivating, engaging, and interesting to learn more about genetics and biology and the applications of research.

“Both my interests and capabilities grew significantly over the course of the internship and I left feeling more competent and accomplished than at the beginning,” Kolehmainen said.

She also noted the support she received from Dr. Sen and Gregory Farage, PhD, instructor in the Department of Preventive Medicine, during the program. “They assisted me when necessary, listened to my suggestions, and helped me feel more confident in my abilities. I would highly recommend the internship to anyone looking to grow their skills and be a part of engaging and interesting research.”

At the research exhibition, Kolehmainen presented her project developing an interactive interface for large-scale genetic data analyses.

“Since my project was essentially developing a tool that could be used for performing various genetic analyses, it was really interesting to present to others in STEM who could potentially use it in their work and hear feedback from them,” Kolehmainen said. “Being able to impart knowledge to others and gain new knowledge from others, with the atmosphere of passion, excitement, and innovation that comes with research, was an enjoyable experience enabled by the exhibition.”

Undergraduate students interested in applying for the SRS program must be currently enrolled in a college or university with a minimum 3.0 GPA in required science courses (an official transcript is required). Students must have completed at least one semester of general biology and/or general chemistry before applying. Previous research experience is preferred, but not required for eligibility. For the Biostatistics Internship program, previous experience in computer programming and skills in data analysis are required.

“Academia and research offer a lot of flexibility, intellectual autonomy, and reward in being able to advance knowledge, in addition to working on something I’m passionate about,” said Li. “I was surrounded by driven and curious individuals who had a stimulating effect on me. I’m confident that in the future, I want to do research in an academic setting.”