Vol 9. Issue 9 / March 16, 2009

Scripps Research Scientists Mentor Students in New SMART Team Program

By Mika Ono

A new program at The Scripps Research Institute and the University of California, San Diego, (UCSD) Super Computer Center is sharing the excitement of science with motivated San Diego area high school students.

The program, called Students Modeling a Research Topic (SMART), challenges teams of students to delve in depth into a research topic over the course of an academic year, with the support and input of a teacher, SMART team program directors, and laboratory scientists. The students' activities center around a specific molecule that is important to the scientists' research.

As the pilot year draws to a close, many students are giving the program rave reviews.

"SMART team has been a great experience to see science in action and to be a part of the action," said participant Wade Edwards, a student at El Capitan High School. "I have always been thrilled with science, but now I have met and worked with real scientists who work in different labs at Scripps. This opportunity was once in a lifetime."

A New Way to Reach Out

As the number of applications for summer internships at Scripps Research has ballooned over the last several years, the SMART team program provides a new way for the institute to spread the word about science among interested young people.

"One of the advantages of the SMART team program is that we can reach a lot of students, with minimal cost to the institute and time commitment on the part of the scientists," says Marisela Chevez of Scripps Research, who is spearheading the San Diego program with Ange Mason of UCSD Super Computer Center. "In addition, the SMART team program works well with the Scripps Research internship program, raising awareness about the summer internships in schools where this is needed, as well as giving us the opportunity to get to know some of the students who will be applying."

The SMART team program involves interested high school students who want to learn more about science on their own time. This year's SMART team participants come from El Capitan High School, Lincoln High School, Arroyo Paseo Academy, and Audeo Girls Home School. Each team consists of 5 to 20 students, who meet from one to three times a week after school and on weekends.

Under the guidance of a SMART team program-trained teacher, participants started the year by learning the basics of protein structure and folding, crystallography, and molecular modeling. Some of this initial training was held at the UCSD Supercomputer Center facilities.

In November, each team was paired with a Scripps Research volunteer lab. "We had the teams 'speed date' representatives from the labs first," Chevez said. "There were cheers and much excitement when the matches were announced."

The Lincoln High School team was matched with the Wilson lab (with mentors Stephen Connelly and Byung Woo Han); this team focused on 1OS-methylthio-DDACTHF, a promising anti-cancer drug. The El Capitan High School team was matched with the Wilson lab (with mentor Damian Eckiert); this group explored hemagglutinin, a protein that studs the outer coat of the influenza virus. The Arroyo Paseo Academy was matched with the Stout lab and worked on HIV protease, which is essential to the life cycle of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The Audeo Girls Home School was matched with the Stevens lab; this team focused on the human A2A adenosine receptor, also known as the "caffeine receptor."

Molecules Up Close and Personal

Over the winter months, the teams met with the scientists from "their" lab, learned about the lab's work, and created posters explaining their molecule. The teams also worked on creating physical models of their molecule using cutting-edge molecular modeling technology, available from the Scripps Research Olson lab, to give to their SMART team teachers and scientific mentors.

Associate Professor David Goodsell of the Olson lab, who is scientific advisor for the San Diego initiative, helped the students with the modeling.

"The students had to use the information they had learned from their mentors to decide which parts of the molecule to show in their models," said Goodsell. "This was based on what would be useful for the scientists' research and presentations."

The students used software called RasMol to design their models, which were later "printed" out in eight to 12 inch structures that can be examined up close and passed from person to person.

"I always learn something when I work with students because of their fresh perspective," said Goodsell. "It was also great to see the interaction between the students and mentors. A few of the students are leaving the program with plans to pursue a career in science—that was exciting to see."

The students are currently in the final phase of the SMART program, which involves sharing their work with each other and with the community. The teams are presenting their posters as part of the San Diego Science Festival, and will appear as part of the grand finale Expo Day on Saturday, April 4 in the main corridor of Balboa Park.

Expanding on Success

The success of the pilot year in San Diego was made possible by groundwork laid in Milwaukee, where the SMART team concept was originally developed.

The idea was first realized in 2001, after a group of teachers attending summer molecular modeling workshops at the Milwaukee School of Engineering wanted a way to engage their students in similar projects. The program's development, under the guidance of director Tim Herman, was funded by grants from the Howard Hughes Foundation.

The Howard Hughes Foundation also funded this year's geographical expansion to San Diego and several other areas of the country.

"Our pilot teams have done a terrific job," says Chevez. "The students have engaged the material in creative ways and have started to think as researchers."

"The kids loved it," said Courtney Brown, a teacher from Lincoln High School, who hopes her school can participate next year as well. "Their poster is hanging next to the principal's office. Everyone who walks by looks at it. The kids are really proud and many are now considering a career in science."

Next academic year, Chevez hopes to expand the San Diego SMART program to 10 San Diego County high schools. SMART team teacher training for the 2009/2010 school year is planned for July.

If you are interested in volunteering for program—either as a teacher leading a high school SMART team, or as a Scripps Research scientist-mentor for a group—please contact Chevez, at (858) 784-2171 or mchevez@scripps.edu.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu



Scripps Research Professor Art Olson explains molecular modeling to high school students participating in the new SMART team program.








Damian Ekiert (right) of the Wilson lab helps Wade Edwards and Luisa Lee of El Capitan High School understand an important influenza virus protein.












SMART teams present posters of their work as part of the San Diego Science Festival.