On June 19, 24 students from 19 North Carolina high schools will begin the second Young Innovators Program led by researchers from the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. The program, sponsored by the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, offers students a chance to experience mentored, hands-on laboratory research and professional engagement at the earliest stages of their careers.
The program is unique for several reasons. According to Mary Roth McClurg, Pharm.D., M.H.S., associate professor at the School and associate director of the Eshelman Institute, professional schools are well positioned to facilitate pre-college science, technology, engineering and math experiences for students. Still, few are offering opportunities like YIP. In addition, the program includes strategies for recruitment of underrepresented minorities.
“UNC-Chapel Hill has world-class research ongoing across campus; to be able to offer North Carolina high school students an opportunity to engage in the pharmaceutical sciences at the UNC Eshleman School of Pharmacy is a wonderful opportunity,” Roth McClurg said.
Interns in the program are expected to complete an average of 32 hours of independent research weekly, guided by a faculty preceptor, a graduate student laboratory mentor and a professional student clinical mentor. This summer, there are 22 professors representing research ranging from drug discovery and delivery to experimental therapeutics and patient care. Interns are placed with a professor based on their interests, and their experiences are tailored to meet the needs of the lab and the student.
Aside from research, interns participate in career panel discussions, facility tours and a variety of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences workshops. At the end of each summer, they present their research to an audience of faculty mentors, parents and peers.
Intern compensation is new to the program’s second year. The mission of the program is to bring advanced and innovative opportunities in the pharmaceutical sciences to exceptional high school students. This includes ensuring that STEM opportunities in higher education are available to a diverse group of students, Roth McClurg said. Paying the students is one step toward broader reach and accessibility and Roth McClurg said it may also give interns a greater sense of value in their work, especially since most research opportunities available to high school students are on a volunteer basis.
The recruitment process was updated this year with a goal of both widening and diversifying the intern pool. The pilot program targeted high school STEM teachers who recommended qualified applicants. This year, an online portal made the application available to any student who knew about the program.
The program is focused on engaging all stakeholders including interns, parents, faculty researchers, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students, and key partners. Roth McClurg said they hope the new efforts will stimulate more interest in an awareness of opportunities in science education and innovation, especially in the pharmaceutical sciences in North Carolina.
“We have an opportunity to remove the stigma that science is ‘not for me,’” said Jimmy Xu, Pharm.D. candidate, institute intern at the Eshelman Institute and YIP program coordinator.
“It is well established that students learn better through immersive experiences rather than strictly didactic instructions in a classroom setting,” said Sam Lai, Ph.D., associate professor in the Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics, director of the pharmacoengineering program and director of YIP 2017. Lai will also be a faculty preceptor for this year’s program.
“By working alongside some of the brightest minds in leading labs in the country, the interns will get to experience firsthand how graduate students and postdocs think, and how to apply the scientific method to discover new knowledge or develop new technologies. This experience is crucial to transition from simply learning about new concepts to actually applying the knowledge learned in a real-world setting,” Lai said.
In addition, the program represents an excellent avenue for the university to recall its roots as a public institution and serve the public by motivating a new generation of young minds, Lai said.
Jon Easter, professor of the practice and director of the School’s Center for Medication Optimization through Practice and Policy is a faculty preceptor for this year’s session. The center works with health-care providers and payers to build and test better care-delivery models. One of its key goals is to develop future leaders who will build a better health-care system; for this reason they are particularly excited to be a part of the program, Easter said. He and his intern will be collaborating with the School’s Asheville satellite campus to improve health-care access in rural communities.
“We need to see health-care challenges through the eyes of a high school student, so that together we can create new interventions to improve care. Right now, it’s all hands on deck to improve health care,” Easter said.
The program officially welcomes the 24 high school interns on June 19 and culminates in a research symposium on August 9. In collaboration with the UNC School of Education, YIP coordinators will conduct interviews, focus groups and other research throughout the summer to ensure the program is capitalizing on key learnings and continually improving for years to come, Roth McClurg said.