UAB CORD teaches kids the realities of scientific research

CORD's eight-week program gives city high-school students the chance to work on real research studies, under the guidance of UAB scientists.
Inside a University of Alabama at Birmingham laboratory, 17-year-old Tiffany McDaniel, a senior at Carver High School, has been hard at work this summer on an experiment to determine the effects of nanoparticles on health.

"Nanoparticles are everywhere in the environment, and they are in everything from sunscreen and makeup to paint," said McDaniel. "I am learning a lot about how these particles cause inflammation and disease in the lungs."

McDaniel was one of several Birmingham City students who participated in UAB's Center for Community OutReach Development Summer Science Institute Research Internship. The eight-week program gives city high-school students the chance to work on real research studies, under the guidance of UAB scientists.

McDaniel has been working with Namasivayam Ambalavanan, M.D., a professor in UAB's Department of Pediatrics' Division of Neonatology, to determine the effects that nanoparticles have on newborn lungs.

Monday through Friday, for eight hours a day, McDaniel helped prepare tissue samples in the lab and performed other tasks to test for the presence of MMP-9, an enzyme associated with lung injury.

"This experience has been great," said McDaniel. "When I first started, I didn't think that I would get to work on a big project like this. I thought that I would only be observing. But they allow us to do hands-on work. And I'm glad that I get to work on a big project that really means something."

McDaniel worked closely with Arlene Bulger, a research lab manager in the UAB Department of Pediatrics' Division of Neonatology.

"Tiffany has been like my right hand," said Bulger. "There isn't anything that I have asked her to do that she hasn't done well. She is a quick learner."

CORD also offers an introductory summer research experience for rising 10th, 11th and 12th graders to study cellular and molecular biology and a second, more advanced research experience in which students perform laboratory experiments in molecular biology and neuroscience. The Summer Science Research Internship is the most advanced of the Summer Science Institute's offerings.

Tino Unlap, Ph.D., director of the CORD Summer Science Institute Research Internship and associate professor of clinical laboratory sciences, says the program is an opportunity to introduce students in the city high schools to the different areas of scientific research, including biology, chemistry and engineering.

"For the internships, we assign the students to researchers based on the area of science the students say they are interested in studying," said Unlap. "Many of the students start the program in the 10th grade, and by the time they are seniors they have the knowledge needed to work successfully in a laboratory. Several of our past participants are now in college and majoring in the sciences."

Research intern DeMarcus Williams, 17, a senior at Ramsay High School, participated in the summer internship for the first time, working alongside UAB Associate Professor of Engineering Alan Eberhardt, Ph.D., on a pilot study in orthopedic biomechanics. For the study, Williams helped engineers test a new device that is designed to hold broken wrist bones in place to improve healing and prevent complications.

"What I think has been most rewarding for me has been seeing DeMarcus come into the program at the beginning of the summer, knowing very little about working in a laboratory, and then watching him over time gain the skills and the confidence to really perform well in the lab," said Eberhardt.

Williams said the experience has helped dispelled preconceived notions he had about what scientific research is like.

"I've learned that research is not always like what you see on television," said Williams. "Research takes time. You encounter failure and you have to do things over and over again. But as long as you don't give up and stay focused, you can do it."

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