June 06, 2020

Jackson Lab work draws young students

BAR HARBOR — High school student Sky Agnitti could blend in easily with the hordes of teen-agers who fan out around the spectacular vistas of Acadia National Park during the all-too-brief summer season.

But while others are drawn by the thrills of mountain biking or the quieter pleasures of sea kayaking, Agnitti, 16, of South Yarmouth, Mass., is helping to unravel the mysteries of aging.

Agnitti is feeding high doses of vitamins C and E to mice at The Jackson Laboratory in an attempt to determine whether they protect DNA from cell damage as part of a study that examines the way genes control an individual’s vulnerability to cellular mutations.

Agnitti is one of 22 youngsters with a taste for scientific research who are at the renowned genetics research center along the Acadia Park boundary for the summer.

With no classroom sessions or prearranged schedules, students spend their days peering through microscopes, examining tissue samples and performing other tasks involved in scientific research.

Selected from nearly 600 applicants from around the country, the high school and college students are conducting original genetic research projects in such fields as diabetes, immunology, heart disease and developmental disorders.

“I’m working with aging,” Agnitti said. “Everybody and everything ages. It has a much broader effect.”

The summer program traces its roots to the 1920s, when Jackson Lab founder Dr. Clarence Cook Little set up a biology camp in Bar Harbor for University of Maine students.

Over the years, more than 2,000 students have taken part in the program. High school students pay a $2,100 fee, which includes room and board. College students receive a full scholarship in addition to a $2,250 stipend.

The students conduct independent research projects under the guidance of staff scientists. They formulate hypotheses, design experiments, collect and analyze data and present their findings orally and in writing.

Among the program’s most famous alumni are Drs. David Baltimore and Howard Temin. The two shared the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1975, two decades after their summer in Bar Harbor.

Laboratory officials who supervise the program emphasize that during the 10-week stint the students become involved in all aspects of biomedical research.

“They’re not someone’s extra pair of hands; they’re not someone’s research assistant,” said Art Champlin, a visiting investigator from Colby College who is residence supervisor of Highseas, the oceanfront Georgian mansion where the students live.

Each project is structured to be completed during the allotted time, said Champlin, who has never seen an instance when something significant failed to result from a student’s effort.

“It’s not always a great momentous finding, but these projects all come to some conclusion by the end of the summer,” said Champlin, himself a former summer student at the laboratory.

“It takes a lot of motivation on the students’ part to succeed — but they do,” he said. “It’s a very self-directed form of learning.”

Rob Shea, manager of training and education at the laboratory, says nearly all applicants are high achievers who are capable of doing the work. The staff looks for a match between a student’s research interest and a project already on the summer schedule.

“Our sponsors’ greatest fear is that they will have a student who is not interested in the project we have to offer,” Shea said.

He likens the relationship between mentor and student to that of a medieval guild, where training was conducted by a master.

“That’s how you learn not only the basic knowledge you have to acquire, but also the nuances,” Shea said. “The scientists feel you can’t teach research as a course — you have to experience it and do it. It’s not just a science, but an art.”

The assignments are demanding, and students often work in the lab during weekends, evenings and early mornings. As respites from the long hours, the laboratory arranges weekend outings such as white-water rafting trips and whale-watching cruises.

Another Jackson Lab alumnus, David Harrison, says his summer experience more than three decades ago led him to change his college major from chemistry to biology and pursue a career in research. He is now a senior staff scientist, the director of education and training, and sponsor of three of this summer’s students, including Agnitti.

The students prepare written reports and oral presentations to document their work, most of which add to the sum of scientific knowledge.

“Everybody knows there’s a very limited amount of time, so we shortcut a lot of the stuff,” said Harrison, who emphasized that the students still manage to produce original work.

“They get a chance to see something nobody else has ever seen before,” said Harrison, conveying the excitement that comes in interpreting data and finding something new.

Working alongside Agnitti in Harrison’s lab, Kwame Makini of Sanger, Calif., was isolating primitive stem cells as part of a project whose goal was to determine their genetic development and relationship to aging.

Makini, a chemistry major at Morehouse College, was unfamiliar with the topic, but got a head start by reading articles mailed to him by his sponsor a few weeks before the start of the summer session.

“Being in this setting and talking to the scientists, I quickly learned what’s going on,” Makini said.

Agnitti agreed, saying it took only a matter of days to get up to speed on the laboratory’s techniques and protocols.

“By the end of two weeks, I could converse on an equal basis with the other staff scientists about my project,” he said.

Many of those enrolled in the summer program plan to go on to medical school or other graduate studies en route to a career that focuses on biomedical research.

Occasionally, a Jackson Lab student will forsake the field altogether and pursue something entirely different, such as law.

“But even in those cases they’re left with an understanding of what science means — both the certainties and the uncertainties,” Harrison said.

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