Applications are open now through April 16th for our 2021 Virtual Summer Internship Program. Click here for more information: https://eipm.weill.cornell.edu/teach/eipm-internship-program/
Engaging STEM Students in a Virtual World: MCC-EIPM 2020 Virtual Summer Internship Program
In late March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancelation of most summer educational programs and internships. Committed to Weill Cornell Medicine’s mission to teach, The Meyer Cancer Center (MCC) decided to launch a new, never-before offered, program for high school and college students in the midst of the pandemic. Drawing on the success of the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine (EIPM) summer research program, previously offered on campus, the two departments joined forces and harnessed the power of remote learning platforms to create a new program compatible with our new virtual reality.
In a few short weeks these collaborative efforts gave birth to the 2020 MCC-EIPM Virtual Summer Internship Program, that brought together more than 70 students, from diverse backgrounds, with a shared interest to learn about cancer and precision medicine. Dr. Evi Giannakakou, Associate Director of Education, MCC and Dr. Olivier Elemento, Director of EIPM, rallied our faculty to remotely mentor our students and deliver engaging and lectures and workshops. “Our goal and the cornerstone of our educational mission is to inspire the youth to pursue careers in cancer research and nurture the next generation of biomedical scientists. I was deeply moved by the commitment of our faculty to our educational mission,” Dr. Giannakakou said.
A Virtual Plan takes Shape
We used the zoom platform for all lectures and program activities; including available tools such as reactions, chats, live polls, and videos to enhance interactions and student engagement. The majority of the students chose to participate with their video on, and their intellectual engagement was truly inspiring. The chats were “on fire” with vivid peer-to-peer scientific exchange.
“Creating a virtual program that delivers the same level of engagement, and is as intensive as an in-person summer session is challenging, and something we’ve never done before,” said Dr. Olivier Elemento. “We were committed to upholding our rigorous standards of excellence in education and mentorship, and creating a highly impactful experience.”
The summer program spanned eight weeks and included daily virtual didactic lectures with ample time for discussion. In addition, students were placed “virtually” in labs mentored by Meyer Cancer Center faculty, while they had the opportunity to participate in their mentors’ virtual lab meetings and interact with individual lab investigators.
A Comprehensive Curriculum: Didactics, Mentorship and Professional Development
A comprehensive curriculum was created taking into consideration the students’ diverse backgrounds and education ranging from high school rising seniors to college freshmen. Dr. Spyridon Mylonas, Research Development Program Manager, and Marie Normile, Program Manager at EIPM, worked closely with Drs. Giannakakou and Elemento, along with MCC faculty to develop the curriculum, and were responsible for the running of the daily sessions. “We created a diverse mix of lectures and professional development activities to provide students with a well-rounded experience. We featured interactive career panels consisting of graduate and medical students and faculty sharing their career trajectories coupled with talks on the importance of mentorship and networking. We were very impressed to see such a motivated group of students, having fun learning about cancer during this unconventional summer,” Dr. Mylonas said.
The three cornerstones of the program were didactic lectures, mentored research and professional skill development. Didactic lectures covered topics ranging from principles of cancer biology (led by Drs Mosquera, Piskounova, Nowak) cancer diagnosis and treatment (led by Drs. Saxena, Galletti, Cubillo-Ruiz, Lakhani), cancer epidemiology and disparities (led by Drs. Tamimi, Davis, Morales), and bioethics (Dr. Mylonas). Students were exposed to cutting-edge technologies including the roles of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and extended reality (led by Drs. Elemento and Sboner, with Alex Sigaras) , machine learning, and precision medicine revolution (led by Drs. Elemento, Martin, Solomon, Sboner).
The students had also the opportunity to virtually attend research labs and genomics facilities, and learn about new tools in cancer research such as the development of the tumor organoid platform. Emphasis was placed on the multidisciplinary research conducted by our faculty that advances care for cancer patients. More than 30 faculty members and 10 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows presented in the lecture series. In line with our multidisciplinary curriculum, students had the opportunity to participate in computational sessions with CUNY’s BigData in Biomedical Informatics program. They explored large scale genomic complex data analyses and integration into the Electronic Health Record (EHR), and best practices for interpreting Big Data to make treatment decisions.
Mentored research was a very important, yet, challenging component of the program for both mentors and students in the absence of “hands-on” laboratory training. “We cannot forgo this module; we need to think out-of-the-box and create a meaningful virtual lab research experience for the students,” Dr. Giannakakou said. With the help of dozens of MCC faculty members who stepped up to the challenge, all students were virtually placed in research labs. With faculty guidance the students developed their own projects and were exposed to the principles of scientific hypotheses and experimentation, and had the opportunity to present their work at a research retreat that concluded the summer program.
An interactive workshop on the value of mentorship and networking, led by Dr. Ruth Gotian, Chief Learning Officer at WCM, kickstarted the professional development module. She led a vivid discussion on how to find the right mentors in their career development and gave students advice on how to network in the age of social distancing. Later in the summer, this module was expanded as students learned to interact with senior scientists, build resume and personal statements, and edit their LinkedIn profiles to reflect their research interests.
WCM investigators imparted their wisdom at a panel representative of several biomedical career pathways, including medical doctors, physician scientists, researchers and physician assistants who discussed their career trajectories and a “typical day at work.”
Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from underrepresented minority groups led a panel on “Navigating Higher Education as a First-Generation Student,” discussing their personal paths, challenges, and successes, as well as providing advice to others. Lastly, students were introduced to admissions directors at both Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medical College, and learned valuable tips about the application process.
“My favorite lecture was learning Tools and Techniques for Cancer Diagnostics by Dr. Ashish Saxena because he was able to intertwine a specific lung cancer case study and clinical trial details into the conversation, which I really enjoyed and learned from,” noted Nikhith Rao, a rising high school senior.
“My favorite lectures were those on Ancestry and Cancer disparities as I’ve grown to appreciate it more with Dr. Davis as my mentor, but also because I was able to form a connection with the material she discussed,” commented Gianna Amissah, one of our HYPOTHEkids participants.
These daily lectures provided a comprehensive, multifaceted program curriculum. “The dedication to research and patient care that my mentor and every lecturer exuded has been incredibly eye-opening and has only increased my passion for pursuing medicine in the future,” commented Ethan Parisier, a senior at Cornell University interested in applying to medical school.
Programmatic Collaborations: achieving diversity, expanding reach, and leveraging resources
A formal partnership was established with Harlem Biospace/HYPOTHEkids, a long standing, successful STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, Math) education and mentoring program initiative for underserved students with the mission to prepare them for success in the high-tech economy of the 21st century. MCC-SIP expanded their curriculum by providing a week of cancer-focused lectures bringing together more than 90 students. Subsequently, half of the HYPOTHEkids’ program participants joined the MCC/EIPM program as they expressed an interest in learning more about cancer-related topics.
Christine Kovich, Co-Founder of the Harlem Biospace and her team offered all of the students a newly designed online mini-course called ‘Bioforce,’ introducing principles of mammalian cell culture and microscopy enriched with cartoons, videos and short quizzes.
Ms. Kovich is enthusiastic about initiating this collaboration during a pandemic that forced us “to make quick decisions on how to transform our summer internship programs from hands-on laboratory-based experiences to a virtual format of learning. Our partnership with the Meyer Cancer Center/Weill Cornell Medicine creates ample opportunities for synergies for middle school and high school initiatives, as we share the vision of providing opportunities and supporting a biomedical talent pipeline that is representative of the diversity of NYC.”
“I want to thank you for letting a student like myself get a chance to experience many different topics that science research has to offer. Thanks to this program, I have now decided to major in biology for the next semester of college and obtain my degree for it. From there, I hope I can achieve my next goal of attending medical school,” commented Christian Perez, a high school senior and one of our HYPOTHEkids participants.
Lastly, we offered our program to students from the High School Catalyst Program, a WCM diversity program designed to offer biomedical research exposure to New York high school students from underrepresented populations in sciences.
Next Generation of Scientists
Students were given the opportunity to practice public speaking about science in front of their peers, mentors, and MCC faculty members at a virtual retreat at the program close. Several are continuing research with their assigned mentors, and will join them in the lab once it’s safe to do so. A number of our students were also invited to present their summer virtual research projects at the NYC Science Research Mentoring Symposium hosted by the American Museum of Natural History.
Importantly, many enthusiastically enrolled to work with MCC’s Peer 2 Peer Prevention outreach educational program, aiming to give them the skills they need to effectively deliver health information to peers in their schools and communities.
Despite the challenges, students became part of a strong network with access to scientific resources, while experiencing a summer like no other. Students will keep in touch over a WhatsApp group created for them, “chatting with my peers allowed me to gain a better understanding of the topic at hand rather than just listening to the lecture alone,” realized high school senior, Elianna Farahmandpour.
“It has been a learning curve for all of us and will inform all our planning for several new educational initiatives at the Meyer Cancer Center and EIPM,” said program directors. The collaborative efforts across institutions and individual programs coming together to share resources and expertise was the silver lining of this summer. The Meyer Cancer Center will continue these efforts and foster new synergistic interactions within WCM and across the state to provide outstanding cancer educational programs to young people.
“My favorite part of the program was meeting all kinds of different people. Each day we had a call and we’re able to see familiar faces and connect with them. Throughout the presentations, we were able to engage by asking questions, stating opinions, and learning valuable information from not only the presenter but our peers,” said Sienna Malhotra, sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and member of The Cantley lab.
“Despite our highly disrupted personal and professional lives, and our refocused efforts on advancing our own research to address the COVID-19 crisis, we knew we had to keep our commitment to mentoring young people and provide them with a program we could be proud of,” said Dr. Lewis Cantley, Director of the Meyer Cancer Center.
It might not have been the one they planned for, but it was a remarkable and lifechanging summer in the face of the pandemic. Looking forward to Summer 2021!
SUMMER 2021 Virtual Program Application Open!
Learn more and apply today (deadline is April 16, 2021):
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Harlem Biospace HYPOTHEkids
CUNY CityTech Big Data in Biomedical Informatics
WCM Office of Diversity & Inclusion
WCM Government & Community Affairs
Special thanks to all dedicated speakers, mentors, and students