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Where our world can unite

by Luther Young / Photography by Tofer Carson

Exclamation points abound when Seanna Pieper-Jordan talks about almost anything. But ask about her participation in the 2007 Summer Student Program at The Jackson Laboratory, and the floodgates open: "It was a wonderful and life-changing experience! It ignited within me an ever-burning passion for science!"

For Seanna, 18, a high school senior in Honolulu, the distance to Bar Harbor last summer was measured in more than miles. Raised by a single mother on the Blackfoot reservation in Montana and now living with a foster family in her native Hawaii, this remarkable teenager is pursuing an uncommon dream for someone of her ethnic heritage and challenging background.

"What can I say? I am one of the few Native Hawaiian/Native Americans looking at a future career in biological sciences," she says. "I grew up in an environment that one would assume would doom me to the common statistics of natives: poverty and drug abuse. But somehow as a child I knew I wanted more in life than minimal education and a string of dead-end jobs."

Her application to the Summer Student Program was encouraged by science teachers at the Kamehameha High School, part of a renowned system of private schools on the Islands founded and endowed by a descendant of Hawaiian royalty to educate native children. Seanna, who boards at the highly selective school on full scholarship, says her summer internship at the Laboratory was viewed back home "as a way to improve the science program at Kamehameha and to expand the opportunities for Native Hawaiian children who love science."

The Laboratory's 83-year-old Summer Student Program, under the direction of Jon Geiger, Ph.D., welcomed 31 students last summer: 20 college undergraduates and 11 high school students from 19 states, Puerto Rico and one foreign country. They spent nine to 11 weeks learning, growing and bonding as they pursued individual research projects with scientific staff mentors. After long hours spent in the lab, life at Highseas, the Laboratory's oceanfront residence, and recreational adventures throughout Maine rounded out the students' experience.

I experienced what life was like to do research every day, and I realized that I would enjoy working as a researcher.

Seanna interned in the laboratory of Associate Professor Gregory Cox, Ph.D., under the guidance of Kimberly Huebsch, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Cox lab. Her project, "The effect of myostatin blockage on mdm (muscular dystrophy with myositis) mouse skeletal muscle," explored a molecular pathway that holds promise for development of a therapy for muscular dystrophy in humans. Her research was funded in part by grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.

"Seanna had a great summer and made some important contributions to the lab," says Dr. Cox. He points to a discovery she made that both he and Dr. Huebsch at first doubted. Based on her painstaking observations, Seanna found "the earliest degenerative changes yet observed in this research model. We are now expanding on her findings," Dr. Cox says.

Seanna describes the discovery as "cool," and adds, "More than anything, I got to understand the dynamics of a lab. I experienced what life was like to do research every day, and I realized that I would enjoy working as a researcher. Kim was a great mentor. She gave me enough freedom that I could analyze data on my own, but she also kept an eye on me to help me if I got lost."

Lab work is only part of the program, and students often make lifelong friends during their summer in Bar Harbor. Her soulmate was Hope Kronman, a high school student from Connecticut whose "views, opinions and energy influenced me" and helped persuade her to apply for admission to Yale University.

Seanna returned to Hawaii in mid-August, but her ties to The Jackson Laboratory remain strong. In the fall, she arranged for Dr. Geiger to visit the Kamehameha High School and showcase the Summer Student Program to her fellow science students. In November, her summer research project won first place at the Pacific Symposium for Science and Sustainability, and she is set to compete in May in the national symposium in Orlando, Fla.

In December, Seanna received word of her early admission to Yale. She plans to join her friend Hope in the Class of 2012, pursuing "a double major in neurobiology and philosophy." Later plans include "grad school and a Ph.D. in a biological science field. Also, at some point I want to go to law school. I'm thinking about being a science advisor to lawyers."

And then? "I do not plan to walk away from The Jackson Laboratory with knowledge gained only for myself," Seanna says. "I plan on educating those who are unable to make it to Maine. If not now, then in the future, I want to provide opportunities such as this for other native children. If I learned one important thing this summer, it is that science is where our world can unite, where our fellow humans can be cured, and where our children can gain a better future.