Vol 10. Issue 35 / November 15, 2010

SMART Teams Begin Year-Long Exploration of Molecules

By Mika Ono

Four teams of students from local California high schools have begun a year-long exploration of molecules that will take them on a scientific journey that includes library research, lab work, and molecular modeling at The Scripps Research Institute and San Diego Supercomputer Center.

The students, who attend El Capitan, Francis Parker, Mountain Empire, and High Tech North County High Schools, devote time after school and on weekends to the program, called "Students Modeling a Research Topic or "SMART" for short. Each team is composed of four to 15 students.

"The students devote a tremendous amount of their own time to the program," said Marisela Chevez, who coordinates this and other educational outreach programs on the California campus of Scripps Research. "Their enthusiasm about science is wonderful."

Now in its third year in San Diego thanks to a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the SMART Teams program provides an opportunity for students to delve in depth into a research topic over the course of an academic year, with the support and input of a teacher from the team's school, SMART coordinators, and laboratory scientists. The students' activities center around a specific molecule that is important to the scientists' research.

Off to a Model Start

SMART Teams participants started the program this year with activities designed to help them learn the basics of protein structure and folding, molecular modeling, and (new this year) basic laboratory techniques.

On November 7, all the teams met with Associate Professor David Goodsell, who initiated the students into the use of Jmol molecular modeling software.

"During the training session, all four teams learned how to design models and practiced on a 'qualification phase' model of a bacterial membrane protein," Goodsell said. "Their first task will be to design a model of that protein."

High Tech High North County biology teacher Parag Chowdhury—formerly a Scripps Research postdoctoral fellow working with Senior Staff Scientist Liz-Wilson Kubalek and Professor Ron Milligan—is a first-time participant of the program this year.

"Because High Tech High North County is a project-based learning school, teachers are given the freedom to design their courses and teach to their passions," Chowdhury said. "The SMART Teams program has allowed me personally to connect with my roots (Structural Biology) and expose my students to the professional world of academic research."

Despite the demands on the students' time, Chowdhury has managed to attract about 10 students from his San Marcos school who have enthusiastically embraced SMART Teams opportunities.

"Although the Saturday labs have posed an additional 'to do' on my students already rigorous schedules, they have loved the opportunity to visit the UCSD Super Computer Center and Scripps, and they were particularly 'stoked' to meet such a notable scientist (they would say artist) such as David Goodsell. His Jmol walk-through has been the highlight for my students so far."

And there's much more to come. In a few weeks, each group of students will be paired with a volunteer lab from Scripps Research so the teams can meet with the scientists and create posters explaining a molecule relevant to the lab's research. The teams will go on to use the Olson lab's cutting-edge technology to create physical models of their lab's molecule. Finally, the students will showcase their work at a presentation session at Scripps Research on March 19 and will have their posters and models on display at the annual San Diego Science Festival.

Endless Summer

While students in the SMART Teams were beginning their activities on the California campus, other students were continuing activities that launched earlier in the year.

Seven high school students and two undergraduates who participated in summer internships on the California campus stayed on this fall doing lab work under the guidance of their mentors. Similarly, several interns on the Florida campus continued in their laboratories as the academic year began.

In California, interns were also back on campus on October 27 and November 8 to get feedback on their college application essays from graduate student and postdoctoral fellow mentors. They also attended a November 3 Life Sciences Summer Institute networking showcase to present posters of their summer research to teachers, mentors, and colleagues not only from Scripps Research, but also from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, and the University of California, San Diego, Supercomputer Center.

For more information on educational outreach programs on the California and Florida campuses of Scripps Research, see http://education.scripps.edu/outreach_engagement/index.php.





Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu



In the first meeting of this year's SMART Teams, students learned about the basics of protein structure and folding.



"The SMART Teams program has allowed me to... expose my students to the professional world of academic research," says High Tech High North County biology teacher Parag Chowdhury (center).



Associate Professor David Goodsell initiates students into the use of molecular modeling software.



Former summer interns had the opportunity to receive feedback on their college application essays. Here, Wilson lab intern Camilo Arevalo (also son of the first Scripps Research graduate student, Jairo Arevalo) receives comments from mentor graduate student Katharine Duncan.