‘Life changing’ Summer Student Program offers hands-on science education

Distance learning program at The Jackson Laboratory allowed two Georgia students to improve their science education at our acclaimed Summer Student Program.

By Joyce Peterson

What happens when two bright Atlanta-area high school students leave the big, hot city behind for The Jackson Laboratory’s Summer Student Program in scenic Bar Harbor, Maine?

For Jasmine Johnson, the experience was “life-changing.” For Gabriel (“Gabe”) Vela, it got him to change his college plans.

Jasmine Johnson, summer studentBoth Jasmine and Gabe are starting their senior year at Rockland Magnet School in Conyers, Ga. During their junior year, their teachers nominated them to participate in a Jackson Laboratory distance-learning program, Independent Studies in Computational Biology, run by Sue McClatchy, Ph.D., in the laboratory of Professor Gary Churchill, Ph.D.

“Gabe and Jasmine showed a lot of talent and initiative,” says McClatchy, “so we invited them to Bar Harbor to work in our lab as part of the Summer Student Program.” The program, which boasts three Nobel laureates among its alumni, attracts the country’s best and brightest high school and college students for a summer of biomedical research.

This summer the two students investigated the biological mechanisms shared by sleep patterns and obesity, working with a mouse model for sleep disorders and the Laboratory’s massive databases. Jasmine says, “I expected to come here and be like, oh, I already had some background in this. I was wrong! But that means we learned a lot.”

Gabriel Vela, summer studentGabe says the summer in Bar Harbor gave him a window on what a career in research is like. “I’ve always been interested in computer science and computational stuff, and thought I would become an engineer of some sort. But after working here this summer I’ve been thinking I could do research for a living. I like figuring out problems, and brainstorming and collaborating with other people in the lab.”

McClatchy says the students have thrived in both the distance-learning and lab settings. “Gabe approaches difficult scientific problems methodically and carefully,” McClatchy says, “producing promising results that could easily be mistaken for those produced by a postdoctoral associate. Jasmine is fearless in tackling daunting problems, and has clear and direct goals for her research projects.”

Spending the summer on the Maine coast provided a lot of “firsts” in the students’ lives.

“Going to sleep with the sounds of ocean is awesome,” Jasmine recounts. “Seeing deer in broad daylight. Learning how to ride a bike. Eating lobster and clam chowder. Hiking in Baxter State Park and Acadia National Park.”

Jasmine and Gabe will continue their work part-time this academic year and will return again next summer. Their work is supported by a National Institute of General Medical Sciences grant to the Churchill lab.

Asked what he would tell his classmates at home about the Summer Student Program, Gabe said, “If you have the chance you should definitely do it.” Jasmine chimed in, “It’s definitely life-changing.” 

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