by Sara L. Wilkins
The Kerrigan Auditorium at the Medical College of Wisconsin's Milwaukee campus was buzzing with excitement and anticipation as a long line of young men and women in short white lab coats waited anxiously in the back to begin the brief trek down the steps to file into the first three rows of seats. Differing in age, height, hair color, skin tone, facial hair and choice of footwear, they all had one thing in common: graduating that early August afternoon from the Clinical & Translational Science Institute's (CTSI) 500 Stars Summer Internship Program.
A standing-room-only crowd of proud family members, friends and MCW faculty, staff and students was present to cheer them on and to provide hugs, kisses, high-fives and handshakes after they walked across the stage to receive their graduation certificates. Victor and James Ejiwale, ages 9 and 11, respectively, strained in their seats to get a glimpse of their mother, Mary, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who had just finished her summer project on building a graph database to promote team science among MCW faculty. "We're so proud of our mom," they shared.
The 500 Stars Summer Internship Program is part of the overall CTSI 500 Stars Initiative, a 10-year strategic, comprehensive and community-focused effort that seeks to replenish and increase diversity in the translational science workforce. This work is done by training and cultivating the translational science workforce, engaging patients and communities in every phase of the translational process, and promoting the integration of special and underserved populations in translational science across the human lifespan.
The Summer Internship Program offers high school, undergraduate, and graduate students direct, hands-on professional experiences in clinical and translational science settings.
"The 500 Stars Initiative is the brain child of Reza Shaker, MD, FEL '88, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research and director of the CTSI," says Doriel Ward, PhD, MPH, executive director of the CTSI administration.
More specifically, it is a community-based/focused component of CTSI and MCW's efforts to address the goals of the NIH's National Center for Advancing Translational Science's Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program, including training and cultivating the translational science workforce; engaging patients and communities in every phase of the translational process; and promoting the integration of special and underserved populations in translational research across the human lifespan.
The 500 Stars Initiative works directly with well-established regional partners to move the translational workforce along existing regional diversity pipelines and takes both direct and supportive roles in the educational and workforce diversity pipeline.
This past summer, the Summer Internship Program was awarded a $410,000 grant from the Al Hurvis/ADAMM Educational Foundation, as well as new grant funding from the office of the Mayor of the City of Milwaukee's Summer Jobs Initiative.
The graduating summer interns were unanimous in their praise of the Program.
"The 500 Stars is a life-impacting Program," says Carl Greer, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who worked in the lab of Emily Patterson, PhD, and Joseph Carroll, PhD '02, the Richard O. Schultz, MD/ Ruth Works Professor in Ophthalmology and co-director of the Advanced Ocular Imaging Program.
"I'm a psychology major, so it was great to be able to get out of my comfort zone, which definitely pushed me and made me think about things from a different point of view. The Program motivated me in pursuing a career in the public health field, where I could use my psychology background. Opportunities like this can change someone's entire path in life. It allowed me see myself working in a medical setting 10 years from now," Greer remarks.
"What makes it fun is the chance to meet people like myself who are motivated, who want to do something positive related to the medical field."
"It was really refreshing to see people who are truly passionate about what they are doing. It was refreshing, uplifting and motivating. The professors were highly invested is us and in our lab. They tried to get a feel for what we wanted to do, and gave us invaluable advice. I just want to stress the importance of programs like this, which support you and genuinely care about your success. They push people to new levels they never thought imaginable," Greer adds.
High school senior Ayman Isahaku researched cell proliferation in ovarian cancer under the tutelage of Erin Bishop, MD, and Ramani Ramchandran, PhD, the Patrick J. and Margaret G. McMahon Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
"The Program is an invaluable experience that promotes and inspires people of many ages to implement things they may learn in a classroom setting in a real-world scenario," Isahaku shares.
"Initially I was set on medical school, but this Program really opened my eyes to the research field, and now I'm eying MCW's MD/PhD program. I really would like to see my work in practice and how it benefits others, but I also like the behind-the-scenes work where I can be on the verge of discovery."
Ishaku continues, "There were almost weekly seminars where everyone would come into the auditorium. We'd watch a presentation from a doctor or researcher, and would go to the CTSI Science Cafés to see a presentation. I made a lot of really great friends in the program. We went to barbecues and field trips and even to Chicago to the Museum and Science and Industry. They want me to keep communicating with them and do passive recruiting. I continue to come back to my lab and I am grateful that even though I graduated from the program, it is still very much moving forward and I'm working on it all the time. I want to stress how great the leadership of the program was and how helpful they were at all times. I would recommend this program to any friend of mine, even those who are not researchers. It's an invaluable way to be introduced to a professional environment, which is very important down the road."
All students have the opportunity to return to the summer program each year to explore additional pathways that lead to careers in clinical and translational science settings.
Haily Kazik learned about the 500 Stars Summer Internship from a friend who had participated in 2016.
A senior biomolecular engineering major at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, Kazik was excited about the opportunity to do research and learn more about MCW, where he plans to apply for medical school. "The Program is designed to give an equal opportunity to all students and to give you a chance to contribute to science and healthcare," he notes. "It was exciting to meet a group of new people and grow closer as the summer went on, as well as to interact with professors and medical students who were doing research in my field. And I was able to mentor a high school student and shadow other doctors." For his summer project, Kazik did research on bile duct cancer with preceptor Muthusamy Kunnimalaiyaan, PhD, a surgical oncologist.
"Some people had the ability to work with others in the program. In my lab, I had a high school student working alongside me. It was cool for me to be able to mentor her and teach her how things worked. In my field, I see a lot of making the products to help people, but it's also cool to also see how the product gets translated to healthcare. The program would not be the way it is without the directors and leaders, who worked really hard to set up cool programs throughout the summer," Kazik adds.
According to Dr. Shaker, community involvement in the 500 Stars Initiative is critical – and reflects the team science model of the CTSA. "There is a summer component and an academic year component to 500 Stars," he says. "Each has a student-centered activity and a family-centered activity. The summer offers internships and externships. In the academic year, students enroll in smart teams, and next summer they come back for internships. Throughout the year, the families and students are engaged in events, such as the CTSI Science Café, that help create a sense of community and identity. What makes the 500 Stars Program unique is that it is year-round and involves the family. You start as a star…we recognize you as a star from the very beginning. Our 500 stars shine brightly in the sky of transformation."
"The engagement of community and family members is a primary aspect for our 500 Stars Initiative," shares Dr. Ward. "Students are not going to succeed without that support. The families are a big part of this ongoing effort. We went out into the community and talked to a lot of community members about how we could work together to achieve this; and moreover, we wanted to ensure that our students/trainees included the underprivileged as well as under-represented minorities – thus ensuring true diversity and inclusion. Reaching the community through children is key to our success. Additionally, through these activities, we have now built numerous long-term relationships with CBOs and individual community members."
Dr. Ward adds that additional funding for the 500 Stars Program has come from the office of the Mayor of Milwaukee's Summer Jobs Initiative, "Earn and Learn Program," administered by the Employ Milwaukee organization, and that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett attended the Summer Internship orientation event at MCW-Milwaukee in June.
"Our goal is to enroll a minimum of 50 URM students in this Program per year," Dr. Shaker shares. "Each could be connected to 11 people minimum, which allows you to invite at least 550 individuals to each Science Café. Those 109 students from this summer's Program, reaching out to 11 people each to talk about what they are doing, translates to the opportunity to connect to 1,199 individuals. This is practical community engagement in action…this is team science. And if you get to 500 stars, you can reach 6,000 people. This is truly education and training through community engagement."
Dr. Ward notes that CTSI would like to expand the Program to younger age groups in middle schools. No doubt that Victor and James Ejiwale will be the first in line to sign up!