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‘SMART’ Teens Pair Up with TSRI Mentors

By Cindy Brauer

Dressed in blue lab coats and safety glasses, 40 enthusiastic San Diego high school students toured laboratories, examined high-tech x-ray and electron microscopy equipment, and fired volleys of questions at researchers. These teenagers were participants in the recent Students Modeling A Research Topic (SMART) Team‘s Mentor Match Event hosted by The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) California campus.

Now in its fifth year at TSRI, the community outreach initiative, which has been run jointly with the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Super Computer Center, brings the reality of science directly to the students, according to Stephen Connelly, a staff scientist in the Wilson/Kelly labs. Connelly and Ange Mason of the Super Computer Center are coordinating this year’s San Diego SMART Team program.

Over the course of the academic year, SMART Teams work to complete a number of academic tasks in their groups before working with volunteer mentor scientists from TSRI on research projects that focus on understanding the structure-function relationship of a protein studied within the mentor’s lab. Trained in computer visualization software, the teams design and build 3D models of their proteins to help tell their specific research story. Finally, they create oral presentations explaining their work to a lay audience and a poster to present to a scientific audience.

With additional support from their high school teachers, who themselves received special training, and SMART program coordinators, students explore the molecular world and experience science as a process and not just a collection of facts, said Connelly.

The day-long Mentor Match Event, pairing teams with their research mentors, was organized as a “mini-science conference,” said Connelly, “with students squarely at the center of all the activity.” The student teams represented Francis Parker, El Capitan, Canyon Crest Academy and Murietta Mesa high schools.

TSRI Professor Ian Wilson, Hansen Professor of Structural Biology and long-time SMART Team supporter, provided one of the morning’s highlights as he shared thoughts on his life’s work in scientific research and recent developments in high-throughput structural biology.

The teens also got close-up views of the advanced crystallization robotics suite and the electro-microscopy suite during tours of the Joint Center for Structural Genomics and the Center for Integrative Molecular Biosciences at TSRI.

Following presentations on their proposed scientific projects, the SMART teams were “matched’ with TSRI mentor scientists. This year’s match-ups are:

  • Ryan Hoffman, research associate in the Ward lab, with El Capitan students, working on troponin, a protein that converts calcium fluctuation’s in the body into movement
  • Jintang Du, research fellow in the Gottesfeld lab, with the Canyon Crest Academy team, researching sirtuins, proteins that help regulate biologic pathways in bacteria.
  • Peter Lee, graduate student in the Wilson lab, with Francis Parker students, studying hemagglutinin, a protein found on the surface of influenza viruses
  • Daniel Murin, graduate student in the Sapphire/Ward labs, with Murietta Mesa students, working on a glycoprotein involved with the Ebola virus
  • Jessica Bruhn-Johannsen, graduate student in the Sapphire lab, with Murietta Mesa team members, studying the V protein, important in the body’s immune system response to viruses

Ronnie Fournier, an El Capitan ninth-grader summed up students’ response to the day’s activities.  "It was the best science experience I could imagine having,” he said. “The scientists, labs tours and meeting everyone. No, really… it was amazing!"

UCSD, which is currently applying for funding for the program, will assume leadership of the San Diego SMART Team program next year. However, said Connelly, TSRI researchers will be able to continue serving as mentors.

The SMART Teams program has its roots in a 2008 partnership between the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) Center for BioMolecular Modeling  (CBM) and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, which then disseminated the SMART Team program to eight top research institutions across the United States. The San Diego program has received funding by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Biogen Idec, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Connelly also acknowledged Marisela Chevez, who helped establish and build the San Diego SMART Teams program; Professor Ian Wilson and Associate Professor David Goodsell for their continued support and assistance; and Dawn Eastmond, Nancy De Monte and Jennifer Vela who were especially helpful with the Mentor Match Event.

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Staff Scientist Marc-Andre Elsliger shows robotics equipment to students from Murietta Mesa and Frances Parker high schools. (Photo by Jennifer Vela.)