P&S Journal: Spring 1995, Vol.15, No.2
Students Pursue Research in NIH Labs
Two P&S students have taken time out from medical school to work in the laboratories of some of the nation's top biomedical researchers as part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-NIH Research Scholars Program in Bethesda, Md. Now in its 10th year, the program provides at least nine months of supplementary medical school experience in the basics of biomedical scientific investigation at the NIH.
Kevin Yao and John Woo earned spots in the HHMI/NIH Class of 1994-95 along with 48 students from 30 other medical schools. They were among 166 students from 79 medical schools who applied for the chance to live and work in a community that shares a common interest in research.
The first few days on campus might resemble one's first few jittery days as a college freshman. Though advisers recommend possible laboratories and preceptors to the student based on his or her research interest, there's plenty of uncertainty. The pool to select from includes 1,100 tenured intramural scientists in 287 laboratories working on more than 2,500 research projects.
"All of us come here without any idea of who we're going to be working for," Mr. Yao says. "There are hundreds of investigators here. You spend the first three or four weeks just talking to people. I probably talked to 20 or 30 before making a decision."
Mr. Yao chose to join the molecular biology lab of Dr. Howard Nash, a biochemist and member of the National Academy of Sciences. He immediately took the reins of a yeast genetics project, and he collaborates with Dr. Nash daily on the project's nuts and bolts. He shares the lab with two postdocs.
"What I was looking for was a very small lab in which I could really learn how to do research, directed by someone who is very established and very qualified to teach me. Howard is exactly that," Mr. Yao says. "People in his position many times just direct labs. He's more than willing to be a bench scientist."
After a monthlong search for the right lab, Mr. Woo joined Dr. Joseph Frank's NIH Laboratory of Diagnostic Radiology. He worked with this pioneer in the medical application of magnetic resonance imaging for 10 weeks in the summer of 1993, so he knew Dr. Frank's research style and personality well.
"Counselors in the Howard Hughes program told me what was most important was finding people you can work well with over a year," Mr. Woo says. "That's almost more important than the science."
Unlike the majority of Hughes research scholars, Mr. Woo does not work in a formal laboratory setting. He writes computer programs for data retrieved from MRI images of the brain in an attempt to quantify brain function. Sometimes he works from the computer in his dorm room at the Cloister, a residential, conference, and office facility on the NIH campus where most research scholars live.
"Most of the scans that are performed now with magnetic resonance are purely anatomical, like what's the size of a tumor, where it is, how accessible it is," Mr. Woo says. "With functional imaging, we're trying to determine what's responsible for what, and how well it's working. This is important in a lot of neurodegenerative disorders. We're trying to image blood flow, how much blood is flowing to different parts of the brain."
However, as of January, Mr. Woo feared he had arrived at a standstill with the project. "Basically the quality of the data isn't good enough to perform calculations. The last couple of weeks have been kind of slow, but you never know when things will turn around."
The scholars, both 24, appreciate the program's emphasis of independence in research efforts.
"Of course Howard [Nash] is always there to talk with me and give me advice, but he gives me a lot of freedom as far as letting me figure out where I think I want to go with the project," Mr. Yao says. "I feel like I was given a lot of responsibility."
For Mr. Woo, starting a project on his own from scratch proved difficult at first. "The nature of the project I'm working on called for a good amount of creativity in terms of designing computer programs to do what I want them to do. The hardest part was trying things out at the beginning, very random things. It's somewhat comparable to writing a piece of fiction. Once you're in the process, ideas constantly come. But at the very beginning, all the possibilities are there. You have to weed out and choose which direction you want to go."
Research scholars also attend lectures, seminars, and presentations on research-related topics offered on an ongoing basis by NIH investigators and visiting scientists. This forum for sharing ideas strengthens collegiality among student peers.
"We eat lunch together two or three times a week. We hang out with each other a lot socially or talk to each other about how our work's going," says Mr. Woo.
In this type of setting, Mr. Yao says, "you can't help but learn a lot. I can definitely see pursuing research as a career now, whereas before it was just something that interested me. It's a tough decision, but I think I have a much more realistic view of it now." Mr. Yao and Mr. Woo will return to P&S in the fall of 1995.