SEAP students finish a successful summer at MRICD
The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense closed out its 2018 Science & Engineering Apprenticeship Program (SEAP) on August 10 with scientific presentations from 14 of its 15 SEAP students, one having already finished the program to attend school.
MRICD Commander Col. Denis Descarreaux welcomed the students, their family and friends, and members of MRICD's staff, and conveyed how excited he was upon learning that the Institute participated in SEAP. Descarreaux explained that from previous assignments, he was familiar with discussions in the Department of Defense about the importance of the U.S. continuing to lead the world in innovation.
"Programs like this is where it all begins," said Descarreaux. "Future leaders help us maintain our competitiveness with the world."
"I couldn't be more impressed with the caliber of young people here," he added.
Over their eight-week internships the students explored several fields of study to include neuroscience, toxicology, molecular biology, analytical chemistry, molecular modeling, psychology, and even medical illustration.
SEAP students certainly benefit from their experience in the lab, expanding their scientific knowledge and skill set as well as cultivating their curiosity and creativity. The students are not the only beneficiaries of the program, however. MRICD scientists have discovered that bringing the students into the lab can result in some very positive impacts on their research.
""Having people with less specific background brings eyes with less bias to the work," says Dr. Benjamin Wong, a lead scientist studying the inhalation effects of exposure to certain chemical agents and opioids. "Their questions often make us think a bit more about why some things are done a certain way and can lead to shifting that process for the better. Also, we've had a SEAP student's efforts focused on automating data analysis be incredibly successful and helpful to our ability to more rapidly execute research."
There are other benefits as well, explains Wong.
"The SEAP students in lab have made me think about how to better communicate why and what we do, what purpose we serve, and how we can engage different audiences. Also, having some of the lab technicians take on more aspects of teaching and mentoring is incredibly beneficial to their growth."
"I think my student reminded me to look at my mistakes as opportunities," says Dr. Heidi Hoard-Fruchey, a research biologist, who is part of the Institute's Absorption, Disposition, Metabolism, Excretion and Toxicity Center of Excellence.
Her SEAP student's simple error of accidently hitting the tip of her pipette into the membrane of a cell in culture had a surprisingly positive benefit.
"Her mistake allowed us to realize that the stain we were using was really staining the cells and not the membrane, meaning that we could rely on the stain to tell us if our culture covered the membrane," explains Hoard-Fruchey. "She was worried that she ruined the experiment with her mistake when in reality her mistake gave us the opportunity to understand the experiment in a way we were not anticipating."
The accomplishments of the SEAP student in the molecular modeling and acetylcholinesterase reactivation labs of Richard Sweeney, research bioengineer, also has Sweeney taking another look at some of his previous reactivation models.
Sweeney's SEAP student was quick to catch on to molecular modeling techniques and software, and was eager to take on more challenges in this area of MRICD's research program.
Sweeney explains that he let his student model a reactivator that Sweeney had recently found for the enzyme acetylcholinesterase inhibited by nerve agent.
"Surprisingly, he started working with a model of the active site that had two reactivator molecules in it. It made sense, but I had never explored this possibility before. He was able to find conformations where the two reactivators worked in unison to attack the nerve agent phosphorus atom to reactivate the enzyme," says Sweeney. "This unexpected result has led me to realize that I need to go back and model previous reactivators to evaluate this possibility. Also, I am currently trying to devise an experiment that could look for the different reaction products that might result."
Two of this year's SEAP students will return to MRICD in the fall to continue their research as part of their senior Aberdeen Science and Mathematics Academy Capstone project. Dr. Linn Cadieux, one of MRICD's scientific leads for SEAP, often encourages students considering MRICD mentorship for their Capstone projects to enroll in SEAP to become familiar with lab procedures, thereby maximizing their time in the lab during their senior year of high school.
Indeed for many students, SEAP is a springboard into other internships and opportunities at the MRICD. According to McDonough, about 20 to 25 percent of the students who intern at the MRICD through SEAP return as Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) interns while attending college or post-baccalaureate to prepare for graduate or medical school.