David T. Curiel, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Gene Therapy Center, is like most any researcher. He wants to find lab trainees who know their way around and are willing to stay on board for longer than one year.

"In my experience the quality of these recruits has been as good as any program I've seen," Curiel says. "For a PI like myself, who might not normally be inclined to take such young trainees, they've been more than attractive. They've been skilled and ambitious."

Freshman Blair Farley works in a lab on an end mill as part of her experience in the Science and Technology Honors Program.  

The Science and Technology Honors Program, in partnership with the School of Engineering and the Community Outreach and Development Program, has created a freshman lab-experiences course that gives students early exposure to key laboratory and critical-thinking skills that will help them be successful in their careers.

Program Director Diane Tucker, Ph.D., says the Research Approaches I course for freshmen in their second semester teaches methodologies and techniques used in research settings.

"We wanted to have a basic laboratory experience that would be relevant to our freshman students," Tucker says. "We've developed two separate, eight-week modules that teach hands-on laboratory techniques that we believe are foundational in the kind of work the students are likely to end up doing."

As Curiel has discovered, one of the advantages of faculty taking on a student from the SciTech program is that it's built into the curriculum that students must spend at least two years with their research mentor. Tucker wants those students to become immersed in their research and to make a contribution.

"It's attractive from a faculty's perspective to have somebody they know will be around long enough they will be able to accomplish something meaningful," she says.

Curiel says gene-therapy researchers are comfortable starting a program with these students, and that the research they do has the potential to yield high-impact results. He says while part of that stems from their lab training, another key component is their desire for knowledge.

"They are students who ask ambitious questions," he says. "We're unequivocally realizing the benefits of having them involved in the gene therapy program." 

Lab exposure

The students participating are from all disciplines in Natural Sciences & Mathematics, Engineering and Psychology.

Recruiting efforts target high school students interested in generating new knowledge in their field. For students in science the focus is on research; for those in engineering the focus is on research and development.

Twenty-six freshman students were accepted for the 2007-08 year. Tucker hopes to increase that number to 35 for 2008-09 and eventually to recruit 50 students per year.

About two-thirds of this year's freshmen were involved in a biotechnology teaching lab under the direction of Mary Williams, Ph.D., of CORD and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. The remaining students participated in an engineering design and materials analysis experience led by Alan Eberhardt, Ph.D., of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

More than 50 percent of the students they worked with plan to be in a research setting this summer or next fall, meaning they are beginning their research experience at the end of their freshman year or start of their sophomore year.

"One of the great things about this freshman experience is that they're getting exposure to things they're going to see later in their curriculum," Eberhardt says. 

"It's a hands-on application of some things that they may not quite understand. But in two years they're going to see something they're doing now and they're going to say, ‘Ah, that's what we did in SciTech. I know why we're doing this.' It's going to pay big dividends for them." 

Student success

One student who took Williams' freshman course two years ago completed a research project one year later in the Psychiatry lab of James Meador-Woodruff, M.D., and was able to present the results at the Society of Neuroscience meeting. 

"We have some great students in this program," Williams says. "They are more likely to work independently and think like scientists and really do work that's their own."

High-school students interested in applying for the program or faculty interested in learning more about mentoring SciTech honors students, call 996-5701 or e-mail sthonors@uab.edu. Also visit www.uab.edu/sthonors to learn more or apply.