Many 17-year-olds in South Florida spend their summers at the beach, but students at the J.J. Vance summer internship program swap their swimsuits for lab coats as they work alongside two leading genetics researchers and their team at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
The two researchers, Dr. Jeffery Vance and his wife, Margaret “Peggy” Pericak-Vance, Ph.D., began the internship program to honor their son, Jeffery Joseph Vance, who died when he was 14 after a football injury triggered an unknown genetic condition that caused a tidal wave of blood clots. At the time, doctors did not have a name for the condition; it is now known as a “thrombotic storm,” and the Vances are researching its genetic roots.
They began the program with two students at Duke University in 2002. When the Vances relocated from Duke to UM in 2009, they brought the internships with them.
The Vances are prominent genetics researchers. Pericak-Vance was instrumental in finding a genetic link to Alzheimer’s in 1993. She discovered another gene in 2010, and is working to find more.
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“[First] we offered two scholarships and then I said, ‘Why don’t we do this internship?’ said Pericak-Vance. “What really the kids loved was the internship. That’s what excited them.”
The program also excited the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes of the National Institutes of Health, which recently approved a $500,000 grant to fund the internship for the next five years, securing spots for 12 rising high school seniors each summer, along with additional mentors.
“This gives us stability for five years, and it gives us recognition and additional support that we didn’t have,” said Vance.
The interns are paired with faculty mentors, and work in their labs alongside researchers at a variety of levels —undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral fellows, associate scientists, senior technicians and faculty members. The program is run through the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics’ Center for Geonomic Education and Outreach.
Pericak-Vance is the director of the Hussman Institute; Vance is the director of the Institute’s Center for Geonomic Education and Outreach.
Working with their mentors, the students conduct research into autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other genetic conditions.
“Hands-on summer research experiences, career guidance, technical knowledge and, most importantly, the creation of mentoring relationships can increase the number of scientists from diverse population groups who will be prepared to pursue careers in biomedical research,” said Michelle Jones-London, director of diversity training and workforce development at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
The students finish the program with a symposium-style presentation on their research.
“This program is a very unique program because the students have an opportunity to get direct hands-on experience working in the labs,” said Andrea Pace-Gonzalez, one of two internship coordinators at UM. “They’re not just being told how to do something; they’re actually getting to do it.”
To ensure that students from varying backgrounds can take part, the program pays the students and covers their transportation costs to and from the labs in the Civic Center neighborhood, near Jackson Memorial Hospital.
“We pay students a stipend because there are families that depend on and expect their kids to work in the summer. We didn’t want them to be excluded for that reason,” Vance said.
The program has changed the lives of many of the interns, with about 80 percent of them pursuing science-related majors in colleges and universities.
“The program made me more excited and determined to continue my path in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] field,” said Kassala Collington, a freshman at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania and Posse Scholarship recipient. “Everything that I learned from the J.J. Vance internship I still use today.”
Bowman Brown, now a sophomore at Carleton College in Minnesota, said the internship has helped him in his advanced science courses at the college.
“I truly valued the time I spent during my internship because it allowed me to collaborate in some small way on research projects likely to have a tremendous impact upon the well-being of mankind,” said Brown.
The eight-week program, which begins in June, is open to rising high school seniors in South Florida. Applications will be accepted starting in January. For more information, visit www.jjvance.org.