Learning the Value of Science: Incoming Summer Interns Get a Crash Course on Grant Funding

By Jennifer O'Sullivan

How do you imagine a group of 16- and 17-year olds might spend a million dollars? Twenty-three high school juniors and seniors came up with their own answer at a class on federal funding for basic science held on May 5 at The Scripps Research Institute.

As part of the eight-week Spring Enrichment Tutorials, which serve as a precursor to the Summer Research Internship Program, selected high school students attend seminars led by doctoral candidates on a variety of biomedical research topics, including virology, drug development, cancer biology, forensics, and funding.

In last week's tutorial, "Grants & Money," three Scripps Research faculty members pitched their respective research proposals to the group, which became a mock NIH committee charged with deciding how to distribute $1 million in grant money.

"This is one of my favorite tutorials to lead," says fourth-year graduate student Byron Purse, who has also taught "Combinatorial Chemistry" and "Drug Development & Diseases" classes in previous years. "It addresses important issues in the provision of funding for science and really highlights the ambiguities in choosing where money can be spent most effectively. I think that the students learn more by making a mock funding decision than by listening to us lecture—and they have more fun, too!"

Let the Games Begin

Purse began the "Grants & Money" class with a brief overview of how much the government spends on scientific research and what types of projects are funded, characterizing the process as one which is highly competitive and which requires researchers to produce quality research results and aggressively pursue funding. He then introduced the investigators—Phil Baran, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, Gary Siuzdak, associate professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and director of the Center for Mass Spectrometry, and Velia Fowler, professor in the Department of Cell Biology— who each had 20 minutes to present a proposal, budget, and preliminary results.

Baran presented first, speaking passionately about his focus on the total synthesis of natural products, and its value for developing future anticancer and antiviral compounds. Describing chemical synthesis as "molecular construction work," Baran appealed to the group to invest in his and his colleagues' pursuit to "make the penicillin of tomorrow." He then showed a slide of his lab group, offering "not just a year of work, but one and a half years. [These lab members] will not see the light of day," he pledged entertainingly.

Next up was Siuzdak, who proposed research focused on predicting disease rather than developing cures. Beginning with an overview of the technology, Siuzdak described a project using mass spectrometry to screen newborns for certain molecules that predict disease. The resulting information would enable caretakers to control or prevent these conditions in the children. Siuzdak incorporated several visual aids, including a mass analyzer taken from an instrument which, he joked, "brings the cost of this lecture alone to $400,000."

The final speaker of the day was Fowler, who described her research in cardiac muscle development in mice and proposed investigating the cause of aborted heart development. The work, she said, has medicinal implications for understanding sudden cardiac arrest (also called cardiac hypertophy) in humans.

From Federal Funding to Forensic Science

The students then broke into three small groups mediated by Purse and fellow graduate students Liam Palmer and Trevor Dale to decide how to distribute the $1 million in grant money among the three proposals, which requested from $500,000 to $800,000.

In the end, the students agreed to fully fund Siuzdak's proposal and were generally split on whether the remaining funding should go to Fowler or Baran.

I caught up with the students at the following week's forensics tutorial and asked how they had decided which proposals to fund.

"We gave most of the money to [Dr. Siuzdak]," said Hena Din, a junior at University City High School. "His project seemed more realistic because it was directly helping newborns."

Kelcie King, a senior at Vista High School added that "the way they presented their proposals was really important. [Siuzdak] did a good job explaining the research that was already in progress."

Purse, who has now led the Grants & Money class three times, said the students typically prefer to fund projects likely to lead to tangible benefits for humanity. He also notes that they are tough critics.

"If the professor doesn't put forth a clearly defined research problem with convincing plans to solve it, the students generally won't fund it," Purse observed. "It's tough for the professors because we only give them 20 minutes and the students have only high school science backgrounds. But this really serves to highlight the importance of effective communication."

Major—albeit hypothetical—funding decisions made, the group has moved on to a mock crime scene constructed by grad students Katie Marcucci, Desiree Thayer, and Sarah Voytek. In small groups, students rotate between fingerprinting, blood typing, and thin layer chromatography analysis stations and will use the evidence they gather to name one of three suspects as the murderer.

Next week, the group moves on to the structure of biomolecules and the visualization of molecules, all a prelude to summer when the students will become part of a real research team in a Scripps Research lab.


Send comments to: delasol@scripps.edu





Assistant Professor Phil Baran outlines the science and technology of total synthesis for students at the May 5th spring enrichment tutorial. Photo by Jennifer O'Sullivan.





High school students (from left) Allyea Ally, Paul Bilinski, Kelcie King, and Michael Comstock perform TLC analysis as part of a forensics lab. Photo by Jennifer O'Sullivan.