High school students become neuroscientists at Duke
Len White, associate professor of neurology at Duke University, stands at the front of the neuroanatomy lab with a large white bucket. Bobbing inside is a human brain.
A group of six high school students gather around the table as White holds the brain aloft, their eyes transfixed on the pink specimen. After a neuroanatomy lesson on brain basics from White, it's their turn to hold the organ.
Iris Cisneros Gasga, a rising high school senior from Wake County, cradles the brain with gloved hands, assessing it with a gentle squish.
“Is it lighter or heavier than you thought a human brain would be?” White asks.
“I don’t know if this is weird, but it feels like, it feels like when you boil chicken,” Cisneros Gasga says.
Cisneros Gasga and her peers are participating in the Duke University Neuroscience Experience, or DUNE, program run by the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. Curious local high school students are invited to Duke each summer since 2021 for an eight-week session where they lead neuroscience research projects.
Cisneros Gasga’s time working in a Duke lab has been transformative. She now sees the many connections between scientific discoveries and her everyday life, and plans to carry these lessons into the next stage of her career.
“I'm just seeing how research can impact every aspect of human life,” says Cisneros Gasga. “Whether it's through little things, or making medicine, … this program has taught me that everything is important. In the future, I'm going to be a trauma surgeon, but also a researcher.”
In February, the application for the summer DUNE program opens for high school students in the Triangle area. After acceptance, students receive a list of Duke neuroscience labs with which they could be paired. Students then rank their top choices. This year’s program featured labs studying the connection between the gut and the brain, neural computational modeling, and the development of protein detection tools. DUNE students then work full time in the lab conducting hands-on neuroscience experiments under the guidance of their research mentors.
This summer has been one of mice and migraines for Wake County rising senior and DUNE scholar Khady Okwuosha. Okwuosha worked in the lab of Duke neurologist and pathologist Carlene Moore, where she studied how tinkering with a specific pain-linked receptor protein could lead to the development of a mouse model for migraines.
But how do you know if a mouse is having a migraine? Okwuosha learned how to visually identify mouse migraines by tracking tiny facial grimaces. She also explored the brain anatomically by slicing brain tissue on the lab equivalent of a deli meat slicer. Okwuosha shared a poignant lesson from the trial and errors of lab life:
“You know when you're doing a project, and it doesn't go how you want it to go?” asked Okwuosha. “That's kind of what happened with [my research]. And I find that intriguing, because it's like a surprise!”
Another core component of the DUNE course is professional development. Daily lab work is punctuated by a series of lectures from leaders in the field, hands-on activities, and career sessions. The DUNE organizers tailor these activities so that students can build themselves an academic tool kit for navigating college and beyond. This holistic curriculum enables scholars to envision a future in science.
Durham County rising senior and DUNE participant Isabella Garcia says that through DUNE’s career support, she learned that she could seamlessly combine her love for scientific research with her desire to help people — she can’t wait to explore M.D.-Ph.D. programs.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a cohort of neuroscience graduate students from Duke came together to create the DUNE program. Trevor Alston is a graduate student, current co-leader, and initial team member of DUNE. He says that current events during 2020 inspired students to take action and build this program for the community.
“A lot of us come from backgrounds where we're aware of how educational disparity can hurt certain populations in the community,” said Alston. “And when the George Floyd protests happened a few years ago, that kicked a lot of people to want to act all at once. One of the things that came out of it was DUNE and promoting educational opportunities for high schoolers who are in need of some extra enrichment.”
In addition to the Black Lives Matter movement, immersive programs at other universities inspired DUNE’s genesis. Two DUNE organizers, graduate student and founding member Kirill Chesnov and program coordinator Tiffany Scotton, attended college prep programs at Stanford and Cornell Universities respectively. Chesnov and Scotton agree that these programs greatly shaped their career trajectory. The pair both hope to pay their successes forward to the next generation of scholars through DUNE.
One of the overarching goals of the DUNE program is to bring students who are from underrepresented backgrounds into the STEM pipeline. Academia has historically experienced alarming drop-offs in the number of BIPOC individuals participating in STEM, especially as they progress through the faculty ranks. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 74% of faculty at U.S. colleges are white, compared to the 4% of faculty that are Black women, 3% each that are Black men, Hispanic men, and Hispanic women, and 2% that are Indigenous individuals.
Programs like DUNE aim to combat these stark academic inequalities. Scotton says that, as a Black woman in STEM with a deep passion for neuroscience, seeing the young DUNE scholars succeed has been immensely rewarding.
“It means a lot to me. Especially because the students, they look like me,” said Scotton. “To know that I am helping to build representation in the science community, that’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Wake County high school student Cisneros Gasga has had a few scientific successes of her own this summer. Beyond comparing brain texture to boiled poultry, she was busy working in the lab of Laurie Sanders. Cisneros Gasga examined how environmental toxins affect activation of an enzyme, PARP1, in Parkinson’s disease. Cisneros Gasga has always enjoyed her general science classes but a family emergency caused her attention to focus on the brain.
“My brother had a spinal cord injury. So then I determined that I wanted to study neuroscience,” said Cisneros Gasga. “This is an awful situation, but I can turn it into something good. I can use [neuroscience research] as a way to make life more accessible and less painful for people with spinal cord injuries.”
Together with her peers, she presented her findings at the end of the program poster session earlier this August. Family, friends, mentors, and members of the Duke community attended to celebrate the scholars’ achievements. Cisneros Gasga says she has gained a greater sense of confidence in science. Before the program, she says she was nervous presenting scientific data but now has come away with a brand new perspective.
“When I went into my lab, I was just thinking like, bro, how am I going to present? Because I don't know anything that we're talking about,” said Cisneros Gasga. “But now I'm very confident. I know what we're talking about, I presented in front of my own lab ... You can just come in and you can mess up. It's okay to mess up and make mistakes, because that's how you're learning.”
Below are profiles of the students in the DUNE program
Isabella Garcia, Rising Senior
DUNE lab placement: Grill Lab
Research: Brain regions that project to the subthalamic nucleus
“I actually want to study human behavior and psychology. And I think that the connection between that and neuroscience is very strong and by signing up to this program, I can get both research experience and a deeper look into the brain.”
Iris Cisneros Gasga, Rising Senior
DUNE lab placement: Sanders Lab
Research: How environmental toxins affect PARP1 activation in Parkinson’s Disease
“The labs that we were all in, I think were very welcoming. At first, a lot of us were thinking we're gonna go in, and people are just gonna be like, ‘What is this kid doing here?’ My lab, the Sanders lab, the PI [principal investigator] was very welcoming … There's always many questions that I had, but they all responded to it.”
Meryem S. Golbasi, Rising Junior
DUNE lab placement: Grill Lab
Research: Variability of fiber sizes in rat cervical vagus nerve
“I think the coolest part about this program was that I could actually see the application of computational modeling in neuroscience, because I feel like I didn't see that before. And also seeing like an actual rat surgery where I could see the vagus nerve and see what I was actually working on.”
India Goldsmith, Rising Senior
DUNE lab placement: Calakos Lab
Research: Validating new tool to identify proteins around a glutamate receptor
“Before I started the program I planned on becoming a psychiatrist and getting my Ph.D. I feel like the program definitely made me want to get my Ph.D. more, but I've also been more interested in leaning towards neuroscience or like majoring in chemistry instead of psychology.”
Vainqueur Makema, Rising Senior
DUNE lab placement: Bohórquez Lab
Research: Impact of sickness on the gut-brain connection
“The coolest thing I've done was dissecting mice. I've never done that before in my lab at my high school. So it was really a great experience and taking out like the intestines and being able to flush it out was pretty cool as well.”
Khady Okwuosha, Rising Senior
DUNE lab placement: Moore Lab
Research: Developing a mouse model of migraines
“I kind of recently just chose to do M.D.-Ph.D., because I wanted to do just a M.D., but then I started doing this and then I was like, ‘Oh, research is fun too!’ So I don't really know what yet, I just know that it's going to have to be centered with biochemistry, because I want to make sure that I like what I'm doing.”