When identifying reasons for their success, scientists often cite the influence of an encouraging mentor or a formative experience in the classroom or laboratory. For more than 15 years, a groundbreaking program at the Boonshoft School of Medicine has sought to provide promising young students with both.
Each summer, college students from across the country come to Wright State for a unique opportunity to spend two months engaged in intensive, hands-on scientific research. The STREAMS program was created in 1994 to encourage members of underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in biomedical research. Today, the program is funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and is open to students with disabilities as well. In early 2010, the NIH awarded nearly $650,000 to fund the program through 2014.
During the program, participants spend eight hours per day working with faculty mentors in a university laboratory, reading and presenting scientific literature, or preparing posters on their work for a faculty-judged research symposium held at the end of the summer. For their efforts, students receive graded laboratory and classroom credit, an hourly wage, and housing on campus.
As part of the program, students also receive career counseling, attend seminars and lectures by faculty and guests, and participate in special events, such as a trip to the Cincinnati headquarters of Procter & Gamble to tour the company’s research facilities. When Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies, D.Phil., visited campus in July 2009, the STREAMS students attended his lecture and then met with the renowned scientist for a personal conversation.
“It’s a wonderful program, because the students get exposure to so many different things,” said Mariana Morris, Ph.D., who is co-director of STREAMS, as well as vice president for graduate studies and chair and professor of pharmacology and toxicology. Each year, Morris also serves as a STREAMS mentor.
“I love having the students in the lab,” she said. “It’s just refreshing to have someone younger, at the undergraduate level, and really see their excitement as they’re able to achieve something.”
A head start on the path to scientific success
It is also gratifying, Morris said, to witness the ways various students build on their STREAMS experiences. Many return for a second year, and a significant number go on to pursue graduate studies in medicine or science, often en route to careers in biomedical research.
While not every STREAMS graduate follows this path, the program nevertheless serves them well, according to Romena Holbert, M.S., assistant director for 2009.
“I think it’s a fabulous experience for the students, even for those who don’t end up going on into research,” Holbert said. “They’re still learning about interacting with other people, professionalism, preparing themselves for presentations and conferences, the scientific method, and being explicit in detailing processes and diligent in analysis.”
Holbert, herself, is a perfect case in point. A high school biology teacher in Xenia, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wright State and is now pursuing a doctorate in education at the Ohio State University—all following her experience as a STREAMS student in 1999.
“I’m excited to be back, because it gives me a totally different perspective on the program,” Holbert said. “The teamwork is fabulous. Everybody that I’ve spoken to here has solidified my belief that Wright State is the place to be.”
Giving star students a chance to shine
In 2009, the program drew 16 students from schools throughout Ohio, as well as colleges as far away as Illinois, North Carolina, and Puerto Rico. They worked with faculty mentors from diverse departments, including family medicine, surgery, pharmacology and toxicology, and neuroscience, cell biology, and physiology.
Chioma Anokwute, a junior at Indiana University Northwest, in Gary, Indiana, hopes to add to the program’s tradition of graduates who go on to success in biomedical fields. A biology and psychology major with a minor in chemistry, Anokwute has spent her summers shadowing physicians and serving as a research lab assistant while working toward her goal of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon. At Wright State, she was paired with faculty mentor Khalid Elased, R.Ph., Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology. She was thrilled to join his team conducting research on diabetes, which she also studied last summer.
“This is practically a continuation for me,” she said. “What I really love about his lab is that he’s making me read the literature and learn about it. What I did last summer was just work in the lab—someone taught me skills and expected me to do something. In this case, it’s more in-depth.”
Her STREAMS experience was so positive, in fact, that Anokwute said the Boonshoft School of Medicine will be one of her top choices when she applies to medical school. Her application will have to wait a little longer than expected, though, because she was accepted for a Wright State-sponsored semester-long exchange program with a university in Brazil, an opportunity she learned about through STREAMS.
The delay doesn’t bother her, however, because she is already far ahead of most students her age: Anokwute turned 19 shortly after completing her junior year in college. She began getting a leg up on her education in Nigeria, where she spent her early childhood. Despite missing a year of school due to a variety of serious illnesses, she quickly made up for lost time, and when she and her mother and five siblings followed her father, a retired petroleum engineer who entered the ministry, to the United States, she was ready to begin high school at the age of 12.
Four years later, she graduated as valedictorian and entered college, where she has experienced similar success. In addition to managing a double major and her minor in chemistry, she has served as president of the pre-med club, founded a group to organize community volunteer activities (another passion of hers), and even agreed to teach anatomy and physiology discussions.
In contrast, her STREAMS summer at Wright State allowed her to focus wholly on her research. With Elased, Anokwute conducted pathology studies using a mouse model of type II diabetes. She examined pancreas, heart, liver, kidney, and brain samples to evaluate disease progression in control, diabetic, and treatment groups incorporating two different medications. The long hours reading journal articles and examining samples under the microscope paid off, as Anokwute ended up taking first prize in the STREAMS research symposium at the end of the summer—just a few weeks before she left for Brazil.
An outstanding opportunity close to home
As a Wright State freshman, Jacob Brewer didn’t have to travel far to participate in STREAMS. A psychology major with an emphasis on engineering, Brewer is interested in human factors research to explore how people interact with their environment.
“I thought it would be a great learning experience to get some hands-on research experience in the laboratory,” Brewer said. “It was definitely a great opportunity to see what research in the field is all about, rather than just reading about it in a book.”
Based on his interests, Brewer was thrilled to be paired with John Flach, Ph.D., professor and chair of psychology. Their research involves Brainfingers, a brain-computer interface developed by Andrew Junker, Ph.D., founder of Brain Actuated Technologies in Yellow Springs.
“What this allows us to do,” Brewer said, “is actually use brain waves and muscles in the face and eyes to control a computer.”
The technology was designed for video gaming, Brewer said, but its potential to help people with disabilities, and particularly locked-in individuals with complete bodily paralysis, soon became clear. Exploring that potential was the focus of his STREAMS research.
“We wanted to figure out if there was a way to use this as a tool for communication,” he said.
Although Junker had released an application package for this purpose, it was very rudimentary and largely untested.
“The software is still in development,” Brewer said, which is where the laboratory work came in. “At first, we had a lot of problems with fine control.”
Eventually, Brewer tried using a software function called “auto hot keys” to link tiny muscle movements to directional commands, enabling better control of the computer mouse. He and the team shared this approach with Junker.
“He was very happy about the idea,” Brewer said, “because he had been trying to solve a similar problem. The thing I had set up was pretty crude, but he was able to show me how to use the functions of his software and make it work better.” Research Spotlight Brewer said the next steps will be studying and refining the software to maximize performance and explore specific applications. The scope of this work will extend well beyond a single summer, but he plans to stay involved by working in the lab as he continues his undergraduate studies.
“I’ve already got a start on what I’m going to do for my undergraduate paper for departmental honors,” he said.
Brewer knows all of his hard work now will help him achieve his ultimate goals more quickly. He hopes to remain at Wright State to pursue a Ph.D. in human factors and industrial/organizational psychology, and then to design accessibility devices to help address communication barriers.
Although Brewer’s work over the summer was just a starting point, it caught the attention of the Ohio STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Ability Alliance (OSAA), which invited him to present at a research symposium at the Ohio State University. Although it meant finishing his STREAMS poster earlier than expected, Brewer was glad he made the extra effort, which impressed the symposium hosts and earned him an invitation to return.
“STREAMS is definitely a great program,” he said. “I hope other colleges will really start participating in the idea of getting minorities and students with disabilities involved in research. I really think programs like this have the potential to improve things, not just locally, but nationally and worldwide.” VS
For more information, including applications for the 2010 STREAMS program, visit med.wright.edu/streams/
Photo 1: Student Chioma Anokwute analyzes pathology samples while conducting diabetes research in the lab of faculty mentor Khalid Elased, R.Ph., Ph.D. Anokwute hopes to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, and based on her STREAMS experience, the Boonshoft School of Medicine will be one of her top choices for medical school.
Photo 2: Wright State undergrad Jacob Brewer presents his work during the STREAMS research symposium at the end of the summer program. Brewer plans to continue his research with faculty mentor John Flach, Ph.D., as he works toward earning a Ph.D. in human factors and industrial/organizational psychology.