The Training Page

Independent Research at the NIH…For This High Schooler


On a Thursday afternoon, the final bell rings at school, and I head to NIH in Bethesda. As I arrive on campus, excited to see how my cells are faring, I take a moment to gaze at the vast Clinical Center and wonder how many patients are being treated.

I have completed two summer internships and an independent research project at the NIH. In the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school (2013), I was an intern at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences’ (NCATS’) National Chemical Genomics Center processing compounds for later testing. In my work within the analytical chemistry group—with Heather Baker, Madhu Lal, and Bill Leister—I gained valuable knowledge about lab techniques and how a laboratory operates on a professional level.

The next summer (2014), I began working in the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research’s (NIDCR’s) Intracellular Membrane Trafficking Unit. I remember arriving on my first day, nervous and toting my bagged lunch, and hearing my name called out by my supervisor Panomwat “Walt” Amornphimoltham, a senior research fellow in Roberto Weigert’s lab.

Walt not only taught me how to perform complex procedures, but he also took the time to explain how each of them worked to prove something instrumental to the overall research. I learned how to approach research as a whole entity and not just as a set of random experiments. I helped plan and conduct experiments, but more importantly I knew why we were doing them and the role they would play in eventually helping a patient. I’m still working part time to finish my NIDCR project, which we hope to publish in mid-2015.

My most memorable experience, however, was conducting my own independent research at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) from 2013 to 2014. The Potomac School (McLean, Virginia), where I’m a senior, offers a Science and Engineering Research Curriculum that provides opportunities for students to work with outside mentors on in-depth projects.

I focused on tissue engineering. After reading the current literature and several papers by NIAMS’s Leon Nesti, I decided to pursue cartilage regeneration. I had read in his papers about how a novel type of mesenchymal progenitor cell (MPC) had many favorable qualities for wound healing; however, MPCs showed slightly impaired chondrogenic differentiation (into cartilage cells). How great it would be, I thought, if you could somehow assist those cells in their differentiation so they could be used to regenerate damaged cartilage.

I set out to find ways to increase the ability of these MPCs to turn into cartilage cells. I cultured them in a hyaluronic acid–infused fibrin hydrogel scaffold because I had read many papers about how that setup had boosted chondrogenesis in mesenchymal stem cells, which are closely related to MPCs. I sent a detailed proposal to Nesti and was soon ready to begin work.

This project gave me the opportunity to work independently while using many of NIH’s wonderful resources—minds as well as materials. With the help of Nesti, David Hall, and Youngmi Ji, I planned and conducted all of my own experiments and gathered my own results.

After about a year, we had gathered enough data to conclude that the experiments had worked. The hyaluronic acid did, in fact, increase chondrogenic differentiation in the MPCs. We are currently working to submit the research for publication and competitions.

I have learned much about the world of basic biological and translational research from my time at the NIH. I have also gained a lot of knowledge about how collaborative science works and how happy scientists are to share their knowledge and expertise. Throughout my time at NIH—whether working in my internships or on my project—I always witnessed enthusiasm and received many offers of help. At NCATS, Lal, Christopher Dextras, and Marc Ferrer let me use their advanced resources to start perfecting the fibrin hydrogel. At NIDCR, Walt provided advice and tutorials on equipment and even allowed me to use the fluorescence microscope to take three-dimensional images of the fibrin hydrogels.

My experiences at the NIH have influenced me more than anything else in my education and have inspired me to pursue research as a career. I hope that NIH continues to foster a sense of learning and exploration that allows students like me to have experiences such as these. I offer my thanks to the NIH and its scientists, and I can’t wait to impart the same knowledge and zeal of exploration to others.