The Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 6, 1999
July 6, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 39


The Rewards of Research

The Leadership Alliance lets minority students explore research careers

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Yvonne Njage, a native of Kenya, originally came to the United States so she could study medicine and then use that knowledge to combat the impact of diseases such as HIV on developing African nations. Njage knows all too well what the rapid spread of HIV can do as she has grown up watching many of her relatives die of AIDS-related causes.

But now Njage, a junior majoring in biology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is getting her chance to play her part in the fight against the deadly virus. As a research fellow in the Leadership Alliance program, Njage is one of 17 minority undergraduates who are spending nine weeks this summer at various Hopkins institutions conducting experiments and gaining valuable and practical research experience.

Kenya native Yvonne Njage, a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is one of 17 minority undergraduates exploring research careers through the Leadership Alliance.

At the laboratory of Diane Griffin, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the School of Public Health, Njage is logging roughly 40 hours per week conducting tests such as immunoassays on blood and urine samples of Zambian children, some of whom are HIV positive, who have contracted measles. The research is part of a Hopkins effort to see what role HIV will play in the attempt to eliminate measles in Third World countries.

Although drug treatments currently available to battle the effects of HIV have significantly prolonged the lives of many infected with the chronic disease, access to these drugs is not globally uniform, and many HIV carriers throughout the world simply cannot afford the costly drug cocktails that need to be administered on a regular basis.

In nations such as Zambia,19 percent of the adult population--and more than 25 percent in major urban areas--is HIV positive, and only the minority wealthy class can reap the benefits of these recent drug advancements. Njage says the same is true in her native country.

She adds that it feels good to be doing what she can to help those in desperate need of assistance.

"This was the perfect research project for me, and it's wonderful to be able to do it here at Hopkins," says Njage, who, along with the other Leadership Alliance interns, began on June 6. "I'm already learning so much, and it's exciting to see results. I think I will like life as a researcher. I love making discoveries."

Njage says she already has discovered that research can be an exacting science.

"Yes, the work can be boring and repetitive at times," Njage adds, "but it pays off in the end."

Griffin, who has worked in the past with other Leadership Alliance fellows, says it's very exciting to see students like Njage get an opportunity to get their research feet wet.

"They are learning laboratory techniques that they can apply to many things--techniques where they can see some data right away," Griffin says. "They just can't wait to see what the results are going to be."

The Leadership Alliance program, which was initiated in 1992, is a nationwide effort aimed at attracting minorities to postgraduate education to better prepare them for future careers in both academics and private industry. It is run by a consortium of 27 leading research and teaching universities and historically black colleges and universities and is funded through a combination of grants and private donations. Students receive room and board, as well as a stipend that serves as spending money during their stay.

As a member of the Leadership Alliance, Hopkins is playing its part in encouraging talented minorities--a historically underrepresented segment of the population in many graduate schools--to pursue further studies.

This year 17 Leadership Alliance students were placed at Hopkins with mentors in the School of Medicine, coordinated by James Hildreth, associate dean for graduate studies; Arts and Sciences, Gary Ostrander, associate dean for research; Public Health, Kenneth Adams, director of Extramural Student Support; and Nursing, Christine Kasper, the M. Adelaide Nutting Chair.

Ostrander says the program can have a significant impact on the future of these students. "On the simplest level, they can discover whether they really want a career in research or not," Ostrander says. "Some students will decide that they really like this work and want to go on to graduate school or a medical school. Either way, we consider it a success."

Ostrander adds that roughly 80 percent of the Leadership Alliance fellows in the past have gone on to be listed as co-authors of published research findings.

"That will become a big advantage when putting an application together for graduate or medical school," he says.

Ostrander, a lab sponsor who relishes the excitement exhibited by young students, says he benefits from the program, too.

"I do it because I love to do it," Ostrander says. "I'm committed to research because I love it so much, and when you can show that to a student and they, in turn, respond to your enthusiasm, it just verifies your existence--like sharing baseball with your son."

Scott Garza, a senior majoring in organic chemistry at Fresno State University in California, is spending this summer in Ostrander's lab isolating DNA from the retina of the medaka fish. The research is part of a study on retinal blastoma, an eye tumor that usually occurs in young children. The retina of the medaka fish is being used because of its similarities on the molecular and cellular level to higher vertebrates such as humans.

Garza, now in his second summer as a Leadership Alliance fellow, considers himself very lucky to have the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge cancer research. Interested in science since he was a young kid, Garza says he is really enjoying his time in Ostrander's lab.

Scott Garza, shown with postdoctoral fellow Jeanette Rotchell, is working in Gary Ostrander's lab on a study on retinal blastoma.

His fondest moment so far this summer, he says, came when he conducted his first DNA digest.

"It's pretty neat. You add all these reagents into it, and then you finally come up with this solution and find DNA present. You can actually see it. It's just an awesome feeling when you see that," Garza says.

Students like Garza find out about the program through word of mouth, brochures available at participating institutions, the program's Web site or by direct contact with the Hopkins representatives who canvass nearby Leadership Alliance schools, such as Morgan State University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Students then send to Brown University, the consortium's lead institution, applications that outline their graduate-program research interests and future career goals and include a list of three institutions at which they would like to be placed. After a candidate is accepted into the Leadership Alliance program, his or her application is sent to the selected schools to determine if there is a mentor whose research interest matches.

These 17 Leadership Alliance students join the 37 Howard Hughes fellows and eight National Institutes of Health fellows who have chosen to spend part of their summer at Hopkins participating in anything from AIDS-related research to the study of the psychological impact of domestic violence.

This year two fellows are being sponsored by the Leadership Alliance Tribal College Initiative, a collaboration between the Leadership Alliance and American Indian Research Opportunities, a consortium of Montana's seven tribal colleges dedicated to increasing the numbers of American Indians entering higher education and career fields. One of these students, Jessyca Small, is working with Gerda Breitwieser, an associate professor in the Department of Physiology at the School of Medicine. Her summer research involves the characterizing of glutamate receptors.

Small, who lives in a town near the Crow Indian reservation in Montana, studies at Little Big Horn Tribal College, a two-year college that is part of the Montana State University system. This is Small's first research experience, and she says it's been like learning a whole new language.

"It's really like its own class. The work is very intensive," Small says. "The hard part is learning all the processes and then getting them in order and figuring out which process did what."

The results from Small's experiments go into a lab book that Small refers to as her "bible."

Small, who plans to transfer to Montana State University and major in biology and minor in biochemistry, says the summer research at Hopkins has helped her to get a better feel for the work that lies ahead of her.

"I've learned that I do, in fact, like research. I find it all very interesting," Small says.

In addition to working, the summer research fellows get to unwind and interact with each other at organized events such as an Orioles game and a tour of the Inner Harbor. It's an opportunity for the students to share their research results and perhaps forge what will become lasting friendships.

A poster session for displaying the work done by the Leadership Alliance interns, Howard Hughes fellows and NIH fellows will be held on Aug. 5 from 4 to 6 p.m. in the main lobby of the School of Nursing.