A Summer to Remember

By Anissa Anderson Orr

Summer Scholars Program gives undergraduates a taste of scientific life

Summer days bring pool time, sunshine, hanging out with friends, and sleeping long into the morning for some college students. It can be a quieter time of year with a break from a busy school schedule. But for other students, summer days bring lab research, exciting discoveries, and a one-of-a-kind scientific experience.

At the Stowers Institute, as temperatures rise and summer kicks in to full swing, the campus buzzes with energy. Each summer, the Institute welcomes between 30 and 40 undergraduate students as part of the Stowers Summer Scholars Program. You can hear them sharing a laugh over lunch in the cafeteria, reveling over a new discovery in the lab, or cheering together at a Kansas City Royals game. They come from schools all over the country and the world—bringing an unbridled passion for science that’s impossible to miss.

“The interaction with undergraduate students and their excitement—it really livens up the summer,” says program coordinator Ana Pedraza, PhD, associate dean for academic affairs for the Graduate School of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. “That energy translates to everybody at the Institute.”

Hands-on experience

Nearly 300 students have been trained through the Summer Scholars Program since its start in 2004. Funded by the Stowers Foundation—an entity distinct from the Stowers Institute that supports unique educational programs—the program fulfills a mission to introduce promising young researchers to graduate-level, cutting-edge research, and to recruit students for the Institute’s graduate school.

Ana Pedraza, PhD

“Scholars get a glimpse of the limitless potential that the Stowers Institute fosters,” Pedraza says.

Summer Scholars spend eight weeks immersed in a research topic under the direction of a principal investigator. The program is open to undergraduate students currently pursuing a degree in the biological or physical sciences. Stowers investigators and lab members select candidates whose skills and interests best match their labs.

“The strengths that Scholars bring to the program are as varied as the labs themselves,” Pedraza says. “This is helpful because it diversifies whom we accept. Every faculty member has their say on who is accepted in the program.”

Scholars have a summer packed with hands-on experiences, learning from scientific leaders at the top of their fields. They interact and collaborate with other members of their laboratory and the Stowers community, and in the process, experience the intellectual and collaborative spirit of research. They learn innovative techniques in laboratories and core centers, which are equipped with the latest technology.

During the eight weeks, Scholars spend most of their time in the lab, where they work full-time, supervised by a mentor. All Scholars attend weekly lunches that feature a scientific seminar on a variety of topics presented by principal investigators or predoctoral researchers.

“They love the seminars because it helps give them a broader view of what’s going on in the Institute,” Pedraza says. “They are informal and intimate and give our scientists a chance to present their research in a way that is more understandable at the undergraduate level.”

The program also provides the Scholars the opportunity to talk about their own work. “Anyone in science will tell you that communicating your work is a critical component of doing science—and it can be daunting at first.” Pedraza says. Scholars present their summer work to their lab members at lab meetings and then to a larger forum at an all-Institute poster session. Family and friends are also invited to see how much they’ve accomplished.

It is an intense program, but there is a strong effort to balance work and play. To build a community among their peers and colleagues, Scholars also socialize outside the Institute. This summer, planned social events included an escape room challenge, a bus tour of Kansas City, and visits to an amusement park, a baseball game, the Kansas City Zoo, and other area attractions, as well as occasional movie nights and weekly social gatherings.

“We want them to build a sense of community and give them well-deserved breaks,” Pedraza says.

Student experiences

This year’s Summer Scholars came from far and wide, representing 11 states, and eight countries outside the United States.

For Renny Ma, coming to the Stowers Institute was both a new adventure and a sort of homecoming. Ma grew up in the Kansas City area and attended a biotechnology program in high school, sparking her interest in basic science. Now she’s earning her BS degree in neuroscience at Brown University. During her winter break she worked in the lab of Stowers Investigator Ron Yu, PhD, who studies sensory systems in mice. At Yu’s encouragement, Ma returned for the summer as a Summer Scholar.

Renny Ma

Ma’s research focused on the role of mouse pheromones in aggression or mating—responses necessary for survival or reproduction. She studied how pheromones could influence certain types of mice that are sociable but poor nest builders. The work sheds light on the fundamental neural pathways and mechanisms involved in development and behavior.

Ma says her experience exceeded her expectations. She accomplished a lot, enjoyed her experience, and was especially impressed by the spirit of collaboration and exploration, both inside and outside the lab.

“Dr. Yu and Limei Ma [no relation], who is a research scientist in his lab—both of them really encouraged us to ask a lot of questions, and not just simple ones, but to dig down deep.”

Ma headed back to Brown armed with valuable new skills.

“During my time at the Institute, I learned an incredible amount about problem solving, and how to approach a problem from beginning to end,” she says. “And I think in pursuing my studies, that will be really useful.”

The journey to the Stowers Institute was much farther for Maxime Killer, who is earning his MS degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France.

Killer learned about the Summer Scholars program from a visit to his Paris campus by Stowers Investigator Paul Trainor, PhD, who encouraged his interest in proteins and proteomics. Killer was intrigued by the opportunity of working in the lab of Michael Washburn, PhD, director of the Stowers Proteomics Center. He applied to the program, and was accepted.

Maxime Killer

Working with Postdoctoral Research Associate Mark Adams, PhD, Killer used mass spectrometry and other techniques to explore how the protein SIN3 recruits other important proteins that regulate gene expression—the process of switching genes on or off. The way gene regulators are recruited is critical for the fate of a cell, and defects in this process can lead to metabolic diseases and cancer.

Killer appreciated having the tools, technologies, and expert guidance for his research readily available, including a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer.

“I was trained to use a machine that was one of the best on the market and probably worth millions of dollars. And they let an intern like me use it. You don’t always get that kind of access at other institutions,” Killer says.

Now back in Paris, Killer says the experience taught him how to organize his time and learn how to plan for unexpected failures in research. Conversations with colleagues improved his fluency in English, which will help him communicate to more audiences as a future member of the international scientific community. He also built solid relationships with Stowers scientists, who are helping him secure other internship opportunities.

“I would definitely recommend the Summer Scholars program to international students,” he says. “Everyone is supportive, and they do their best to help you succeed.”

The faculty perspective

Faculty who host Scholars in their labs appreciate the chance to mentor up-and-coming scientists who reinvigorate their labs with new ideas and fresh perspectives.

Ana Solis Pinson, Erik Zhivkoplias, Julia Zeitlinger, PhD, and Nastya (Anastasiia) Onyshchenko

“The students are really talented, and having them here gives the lab a splash of something fresh, and changes things up a bit,” says Stowers Associate Investigator Julia Zeitlinger, PhD. Her lab focuses on uncovering the rules that govern gene regulation.

The program also gives predoctoral researchers in her lab a valuable mentoring experience when they are paired with Scholars. And it is a good opportunity to test out scientific talent, and recruit the best of the bunch for the Graduate School.

Zeitlinger hosts students in her lab each year. She considers herself “very selective,” and interviews each candidate by video call to determine if they have the right skills and personality for her lab. Zeitlinger is drawn to students who are curious, ask a lot of questions, and have taken the time to educate themselves about her work.

“If they have an analytical feel and drive, that is when I think they will do well,” she says.

This year, Zeitlinger hosted three Scholars who came from Russia, Ukraine, and Mexico. They helped launch new genomic sequencing and imaging technologies for studying fruit fly embryos. Zeitlinger says their preliminary work was essential to getting the projects off the ground.

Students who demonstrate excellence in the lab are rewarded with the kind of recommendations, research experience, and connections critical for launching scientific careers.

“With the Summer Scholars program, we are providing a nice springboard for young talented scientists,” Zeitlinger says.

Coming back for more

It’s not uncommon for Summer Scholars to return to the Institute to work on their senior thesis, enroll in the Graduate School, or even join the scientific staff.

That’s a key indicator of the Summer Scholars Program’s success, Pedraza says.

“We hold exit interviews, and from the feedback we receive, it’s clear they get a lot out of it. They learn how to be a part of a scientific community, excel in research, and take advantage of what the Stowers Institute has to offer,” she says, adding that the program has far-reaching benefits, not just for students or the Institute, but for scientific discovery as a whole.

“It’s a natural extension of Jim and Virginia Stowers’ philosophy. When you foster a passion for science—that’s how you advance science and find cures. And that’s our ultimate goal.”