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The Med Days of Summer

PARS 1The end of summer comes in many forms, from the day after Labor Day weekend to the eve of the autumnal equinox. On the Penn Med campus, mid-August marks the start of the end for many undergrads and high-school students who are wrapping up lab experiments and making presentations about their work in an array of programs designed to showcase what research is all about.

The day I visited the Penn Academy for Reproductive Sciences (PARS) last week, Monica Mainigi, MD, assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and research specialist Teri Ord were showing students from area high schools what mouse sperm and eggs look like. The PARS program is a research clinic for high-school girls that focuses on the science behind human reproduction and careers in research and clinical medicine.

PARS runs three times a year, with a three-day session in the summer for up to 15 young women. It's funded by the National Institutes of Health and is a joint effort by the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, Penn Fertility Care, the Center for Research on Reproduction and Women's Health, and the Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The students get to see hands-on labs, and the day I attended was devoted to in vitro fertilization. The students mixed mouse eggs and sperm and saw that the many wiggling sperm that outnumber and attach to one egg are so plentiful that the eggs literally spin on the microscope slides. These vivid lab demonstrations lent themselves to impromptu talks about the ethics and reasons for egg freezing and IVF, as well as teen birth control.

Meanwhile, on campus the next day, as the young women in PARS were learning about oncofertility  -- maintaining fertility in the face of cancer -- 14 undergrad students from a dozen universities, including Penn, were finishing up projects on gastrointestinal research. That initiative, called the Undergraduate Student Scholars Program, run by the Center for Molecular Studies in Digestive and Liver Diseases in the Division of Gastroenterology, started in 2001. The students attend lectures and presentations and conduct basic research in the lab of an experienced Penn investigator. The education reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer visited this program and profiled many of the USSP students, who studied both clinical and basic science research questions:

Carly Sokach didn't have much interest in research. For her, it was simply an obligatory requirement for her to apply to medical school. But that changed this summer when the University of Pennsylvania rising junior began working on research that inspired her: She studied whether a questionnaire could tell doctors if a patient with ulcerative colitis was in remission, rather than resorting to a colonoscopy, an invasive procedure. She spent much of her time talking to patients who had the disease."This experience made me appreciate clinical research for what it's worth and fall in love with it," said Sokach, of West Pittston. "It kind of confirmed why I want to be a physician."

"I had such a wonderful experience last summer that I wanted to return and continue on my project," said Angeliz Caro, from the University of Puerto Rico. She focused on the esophagus and how patients with acid reflux can get cancer. She displayed under a microscope normal circular cells and then elongated cells from a patient with acid reflux."They actually resemble cells found in the intestinal tract," she said. "It's important because at the end, they can start to change into cancer cells."

The Teen Research and Education in Environmental Science, or TREES, also offers hands-on research opportunities to high-school students, but in the environmental health field. Each summer, about eight high-school students work one-on-one with mentors on projects that they choose and design. Students have focused on studying the potential of various inexpensive materials in removing arsenic from drinking water, on fracking fluid and filtering techniques, and on turning harmful nitrogen-based air pollutants into a calcium-nitrate fertilizer. In fact, Anjalie Field, the daughter of TREES program director, Jeff Field, PhD, professor of Pharmacology, studied food safety and developed tests to measure the protein content of cat food without interference from the contaminant melamine. She received numerous awards for this work and published a scientific paper on the topic. Currently, she attends Princeton University, where she is a computer science major. Field says that the program has had an eventful year with all students winning their categories in science fairs and Michelle Moffa and Ailis Dooner winning national recognition. Ailis went on to place second at the national Intel competition.

TREES is jointly sponsored by the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology and the department of Pharmacology.

Other summer offerings at Penn, among many, include:

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