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Making the Grade: A Decade of Research Experiences for Arizona’s Students

Author: Brandy Wells, Director of Public Affairs and Education for TGen

Over the past decade, patients haven’t been the only beneficiaries of the leading-edge research conducted at the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen). Since 2007, Arizona high school, college, graduate and medical school students have worked alongside TGen scientists in a paid, eight-week, biomedical research internship program known as Helios Scholars at TGen.

What began that year through a pilot grant from Helios Education Foundation led to a 25-year, $6.5 million endowment that in 2016 celebrates 10 years of student success. This forward-thinking partnership with Helios enables TGen to help educate the next generation of researchers and physicians and build the scientific talent pool for Arizona — in Arizona.

Each summer, 45 students actively contribute to ongoing research projects. To date, more than 400 students have benefited from hands-on research experiences in a variety of diseases and disorders including cancer, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes and metabolic disease, and infectious diseases like Valley Fever. 

TGen’s world-class scientists provide one-on-one mentorship to ensure each student has a chance to successfully work through a unique scientific question, using critical thinking and technical skills. As the students’ skills develop, they establish a degree of independence in their projects and build confidence in their ability to conduct complex research. Importantly, their work moves the goals of their host laboratories forward, contributing to the steady fight against both common and rare human diseases.

TGen takes great strides to promote the program to students from diverse populations and schools. Because the summer internship is paid, TGen is able to recruit students from many socioeconomic backgrounds who might not be able to participate otherwise. The result is an internship program accessible to students from all backgrounds, including those underrepresented in the biosciences.

“I wouldn't be where I am today without the learning experiences and research opportunities I received through Helios Scholars at TGen,” says Megan Russell, a 2009 Scholar who now works as a bioinformatician in TGen's Neurogenomics Division. Megan also pays it forward by mentoring current Scholars who enter the program with similar hopes and dreams for a career in the biosciences.

“I highly recommend that any student in Arizona planning on going into the fields of bioscience or medicine apply for the Helios Scholars at TGen program,” says Juan Rodriguez, who completed the program in 2015. Juan received his Bachelor's Degree in Applied Mathematics from Arizona State University in December 2015, and this year began graduate school in Software Engineering and Bioinformatics while continuing to advance research in labs at both ASU and TGen.

In addition to those students who further solidify their desire to pursue careers in biomedicine following a summer at TGen, the program also provides direction for those students who may be on the fence in terms of choosing a profession.

As a high school student, Tiffanie Cappello Lee was unsure about her career choice. That is until she completed her first summer working in the lab of one of the nation’s most noted experts in pancreatic cancer. The experience boosted Tiffanie’s confidence and heightened her expectations of what she could accomplish.

Now, on the heels of winning a prize in March for her cancer research at the 2016 Arizona Science and Engineering Fair (AzSEF), Cappello Lee will continue her research this summer on biomarkers that might predict patient response to a new class of cancer drugs. And, in August she is poised to start her freshman year under full scholarship at the University of Notre Dame.

“I credit Helios Scholars for my love of research, and why I want to do research in the future,” says Cappello Lee. “It seems crazy for me now to realize that something that I almost didn’t consider — because I didn’t think I was good enough to get into such a program — would become such a big part of my life.”

Helios Scholars at TGen has helped launch the careers of many promising and talented students, and after a decade is adding significantly to the bioscience workforce landscape in Arizona.  Scholars boast an array of impressive accomplishments, including acceptance into top tier graduate and medical schools, unique career developments, national awards and scholarships, and authorship credit in numerous scientific publications.

Beyond patient-focused research, Helios Scholars also participate in professional development seminars, including science communication, public speaking, and basic business etiquette, as well as social activities to build and strengthen relationships between students. This summer’s program began on June 6, and concludes July 29 with a scientific symposium, highlighting the accomplishments of the 2016 Helios Scholars.

The ongoing success of Helios Scholars at TGen is due in large part to the foresight of Helios Education Foundation. TGen is grateful for Helios’ desire to create an innovative program with the longevity necessary to make a strong, positive impact on the lives of individual students and the larger Arizona economy. For the past ten years, and the remaining 15 years, we will continue to grow and nurture a community of Arizona’s brightest science, technology, engineering and math students. Helios’ early recognition of the importance of investing in STEM education will shape the future of hundreds of students.

To recognize the 2016 milestone, TGen and Helios Education Foundation are planning a celebratory breakfast Sept. 30, 2016, at the Arizona Biltmore for community, business and education leaders, as well as Helios Scholars at TGen alumni, to recognize the valuable, talented network developed over the past ten years.

Applications for the 11th class of Helios Scholars at TGen will be accepted starting in January 2017 at www.tgen.org/intern. For more information, contact Julie Euber, TGen Education and Outreach Specialist, at 602-343-8459, or jeuber@tgen.org or follow us on FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter @TGen.

Category: Postsecondary Success

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