Unexpected Results

By Jennifer O'Sullivan

The team of 2002 interns (pictured here with program organizer Jennifer O'Sullivan, top left) learned about scientific research in a working lab this summer. Photo by Jason S. Bardi.

Unambiguous confirmation. Experimental success. Timely results. These are to scientists what touchdowns are to football teams—positive outcomes resulting from well planned and adroitly executed work, mixed with the occasional dash of serendipity. Such "pure scores" are also what students typically experience in the high school laboratory due to constraints of time and resources. However, the work performed by local high school students and teachers as part of the 2002 Summer Internship Program at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) provided an enlightening look at what occurs in a working scientific research lab. The field goals, fumbles, and interceptions, if you will.

"In the classroom, an experiment is designed to provide perfect results if the directions are followed correctly," says Rebecca Braden, a biology teacher at University of San Diego High School who interned with Assistant Professor Monica Carson in the Department of Molecular Biology. "In the lab here [at TSRI], that isn't always the case. You must identify errors and unexpected relationships, then either repeat the experiment or restructure it."

Working in a research lab for two months, Braden notes, allows time for interns to learn that repetition and unexpected results are a part of the process and not a sign of failure. Under one of the program requirements for teacher interns to develop a lesson plan for future use, Braden has created a biotechnology curriculum designed to give students a clearer understanding of unpredictable aspects of lab work and to foster independent study skills, effective communication, and basic bench skills. Mt. Miguel student LaRena Woods, interning in the lab of Assistant Professor Z.K. Pan in the Department of Molecular and Experimental Medicine, also learned first-hand that results from a working lab can surprise and is now familiar with the concept of a partially successful experiment.

The goal of the experiment on which she assisted was to clone, isolate, and purify a specific protein—general flourescent protein (GFP). Using two different methods, Woods successfully isolated and purified GFP; however, the level of concentration was not as high as planned.

"We also discovered an error in our results. Two bands were present when we tested the purified protein samples by electrophoresis," she reported at the final program on August 16, at which the 18 students and three teachers in the summer internship program presented their work. "An explanation for this second band may be that in E.coli there was actually another protein that also binds to glutathione. Another reason may be that the plasmid pGEX that was used was not homogeneous, which might have resulted in a mutation."

Also unlike science tutorials in a classroom, research in a working lab is open-ended, as Mt. Miguel High School student Reinhart Arquiza discovered. After working with Drs. Clint Potter and Bridget Carragher in the Automated Molecular Imaging Group, he has a new perspective on the work of a scientist: "You're working for this solution that no one has the answer to and you eventually have [to come up with something]. It's like trying to find the meaning of life with some clues and a deadline."

Interns also learned that real-life science is played as a team sport. The opportunity to work as part of a research team and contribute to a project is what interns cite most often as the highlight of their TSRI experience.

Victoria Mejia-Perales, a Lincoln High School student interning in the Kelly lab in the Department of Chemistry, worked most closely with third-year graduate student Songpon Deechongkit, but also interacted with other grad students, postdocs, lab managers and professors in a lab that combined chemists, biologists and biochemists. Mejia-Perales learned how to synthesize peptides, and was later offered an experiment working with amyloid fibrils, which are formed by the disintegration of mis- or unfolded proteins.

"Dr. Kelly thought it would be interesting to see if food high in protein could in any way form amyloid fibrils, so he suggested I do an experiment using eggs and tofu," Mejia-Perales wrote in her final report. In preliminary experiments, she worked to make a positive control slide that showed egg with amyloid.

In addition to exposing participants to the process of scientific research, the eight-week internship provided many students with their first taste of a 40-hour-per-week job. As intern Amy Leff, who worked with Ruben Abagyan in the Department of Molecular Biology on computational biology and bioinformatics, puts it, the program "allows young people to become entrenched in the institute as a full-time employee... I learned to use the computer programs Unix and ICM to illustrate protein structures and 'ligands' within the proteins, learned how to research articles and also how to illustrate the actions of a certain class of antibiotics via computers." Leff, who started her senior year at Helix Charter School just three days after the internship wrapped up, plans to major in a biological science at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, or Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Offering high school students guidance with college and career plans is another objective of the Summer Research Internship Program. This occurs both through interactions in the lab and through the mentorship component, which pairs each high school intern with a TSRI graduate student or postdoc outside their lab who meets with the student over lunch and corresponds via email.

Interns sometimes refine their plans as a result of these interactions, as in the case of Leigh Fritz, who worked in the Wilson lab, most closely with graduate student Matt Kelker. Leigh says that the summer internship has shown her that she does in fact want to continue her education in the sciences, but that discussions with Kelker and others persuaded her to apply to larger universities with strong molecular biology or biochemistry programs, rather than the smaller schools she previously had in mind.

Also high on the summer interns' list of program benefits was the variety of people they had the opportunity to work with during their eight-week stay. When asked to evaluate the program, most interns offer glowing descriptions of their multi-cultural lab environments, from the variety of accents they became accustomed to, to the sharing of international foods, to the myriad idiosyncrasies of each lab's members. Recalling the post doc who supervised her, for example, Han lab intern Angel Nguyen noted that she would miss "the little sound he makes when you tell him something interesting." Small details and stories abound.

At the welcome reception for interns in June, the program's organizers coached interns to think not about how the internship program was living up to their expectations, but how they were living up to the expectations of the program. Interns were urged to take advantage of the opportunities that would arise during their stay, and that by doing so they might be surprised where they ended up at the conclusion of the program.

The interns must have taken the advice with them out of the huddle, as they completed their eight weeks at TSRI with a sense of wonder and accomplishment, and a better appreciation for the nature of scientific research.