Summer Help or Summer HELP!

Not many doctors can speak of their affiliation with a street gang and with the American Medical Association. But most people don't have the grit required to transform themselves from teenage toughs to MDs. After running with a gang while growing up on the hardscrabble streets of Gary, Ind., Ryan Gholson is now preparing for medical studies as an undergrad at Indiana State University, Terre Haute. Gholson went to Houston this summer with both aspirations and reservations about the Summer Medi

Sep 2, 2002
Hal Cohen

Not many doctors can speak of their affiliation with a street gang and with the American Medical Association. But most people don't have the grit required to transform themselves from teenage toughs to MDs. After running with a gang while growing up on the hardscrabble streets of Gary, Ind., Ryan Gholson is now preparing for medical studies as an undergrad at Indiana State University, Terre Haute.

Gholson went to Houston this summer with both aspirations and reservations about the Summer Medical and Research Training (SMART) program at Baylor College of Medicine. A recipient of a National Institutes of Health minority student development grant, Gholson wanted research experience to improve his chances of admission to a medical school. But he was unsure if he was on par academically with his Ivy League colleagues. "At first I thought I was there only because I was a minority," he says. But by the end of the intensive, 10-week program, Gholson had proved his mettle.

During the summer, many academic and industry labs open their doors to undergraduates. Some want to give college students the opportunity to perform research at a major institution; others need the extra hands. "One of our ulterior motives is to get our name out there and to use it as a vehicle to get good graduate students," says Jeff Selenskey, coordinator of the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

For students, the motivation for summer lab work can be heroic or routine. Some sock away tuition money or collect cash to spend during the upcoming school year; others avoid sweaty and tedious jobs that are the usual hallmarks of summer employment. Some career-minded scholars use the SMART program as a stepping-stone for further education. "Students have realized that in order to progress to the next level of education, whether it be medical or graduate school, there is an expectation that they have lab experience," says Gayle Slaughter, SMART director at the Texas Medical Center, Houston.

The work ranges from mind numbing to mesmerizing. "A lot of it can be mundane," says Vince Bakanauskas, supervisor of the work-study program at the University of Pennsylvania. "Our summer help is always bright and aggressive, but we usually start them out making solutions, cleaning glassware, or autoclaving before we move them onto bigger and better things."

Slaughter says SMART is designed to keep students stimulated: Those merely trying to bulk their resume need not apply. "We have our students doing frontline research. About 90% of our students get results that can be used after they leave," she says. This summer, a SMART student developed a computer program that has linked together some of the uncertain sequences in the human genome.

But lofty expectations can sometimes go unfulfilled. Some new recruits toil without tenacity, says Peter Bodine, principal scientist at Wyeth Research, headquartered in Collegeville, Pa. "In a pharmaceutical setting, there is a high level of professionalism and expectations, with timelines that always need to be met," he explains. "These pressures are very different from those in an academic setting."

After working with undergrads in the lab for more than 30 years, Bakanauskas has seen them regress to sophomoric behavior. He says younger help may have to be told more than once how to complete a task. He has heard the sonorous tone of a youthful voice, saying: "I don't do dishes." One lab worker once walked out in the middle of an experiment to attend a Woodstock concert.

On the whole, though, most sources say, the undergrads are a helpful, conscientious bunch who contribute whatever they can while they get a taste of their future. "It's nice to know the research I performed was used to help others after I'd be gone," Gholson says. "At least I know my work wasn't in vain."

Hal Cohen can be contacted at hcohen@the-scientist.com.