CAMBRIDGE – Wearing purple latex gloves, safety glasses, and a white lab coat, 17-year-old Angel Muthemba dispensed a pipette filled with DNA into the ridge of a measuring device.
Seconds later, an adjacent computer flashed with a reading that showed a small concentration of the genetic material in the sample.
“It’s an OK number,” Muthemba said, with a hint of snark.
The rising senior at Revere High School had seen higher results after long hours spent with the DNA. Occasionally, she’ll celebrate her hard work with a victory dance in the laboratory at the Forsyth Institute – a leading dental research center that is affiliated with the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.
Through a competitive eight-week summer internship at the Cambridge lab, Muthemba and seven other high school students from the Boston area regularly witness the smallest successes that could eventually lead to public health breakthroughs. This year’s cohort was selected from more than 200 applicants, organizers said.
Before attending medical school – and even college – the paid interns are exposed to the reality of the STEM field with the guidance of world-renowned scientists, said program director Megan Pugach-Gordon. For the young interns, the program could be a critical launching pad for a career in the sciences.
Interns are assigned mentors — many with PhDs or master’s degrees — who establish research objectives and explain the fundamental science that students will eventually learn in introductory, or perhaps advanced, college classes. Their projects range from exploring how white blood cells from the immune system might affect gum disease to what triggers protein loss in salivary glands.
“It’s amazing how quickly they pick things up — how much they understand,” said Pugach-Gordon, smiling as Muthemba infused casual conversation with complex biological terms. “They’re so intimately involved in cutting-edge research.”
Bruce Paster, a senior staff member at Forsyth and internship mentor, said it is heart-warming to see the students’ excitement at performing hands-on experiments.
“They’re like sponges,” Paster said of the interns. “I just feel proud that they get it, and they don’t seem to have any fear. They have a certain degree of confidence that we try to build.”
At debriefing sessions, interns – rather than the professional scientists – probe one another about why certain molecular techniques might have failed to produce valid results, Pugach-Gordon said.
The students said that they don’t feel intimidated when they enter the Forsyth Institute — they feel empowered. They’re catching a glimpse of their futures.
Cheyenne Stringfellow, a rising senior at Belmont High School, described every day at her internship as rewarding, regardless of the hundreds of repetitive experiments.
“There’s a purpose — there’s a cause,” she said, adding the program signifies far more than a résumé boost. “It’s very surreal.”
On a recent visit to the lab, Stringfellow, 17, and Muthemba worked side by side, carefully growing bacteria swabbed from the mouths of lab mice.
Through an intricate, well-rehearsed routine, Stringfellow and Muthemba purified DNA samples, copied the genetic material through a technique known as polymerase chain reaction, and sent the batches to a separate lab to determine their subcomponents. After that, the students analyzed the results by comparing known bacterial species within an online database. In July, the National Institutes of Health awarded a federal grant to a Forsyth researcher to support the ongoing project.
The goal of Stringfellow and Muthemba’s work is to identify new and existing species of bacteriathat comprise a mouse’s oral microbiome, or repository of genetic material. That information, in turn, can ultimately help clinicians design and study treatments meant for oral diseases — such as tooth decay or dry mouth — in humans.
“We already have a tree that’s been discovered,” said Muthemba, who thought she too had struck a hidden branch earlier this summer – until a mentor informed her otherwise. “We’re looking to see if we can add new things on there.”
At a nearby lab bench, Anthony Kushta, an intern and aspiring cardiologist, monitored the livelihood of cells that eventually will be harvested and cloned to mimic the outer surface of the HIV virus. He “feeds” the cells nutrients on a controlled schedule and uses a microscope to detect contaminated samples.
“Some cells don’t like to be congested,” said Kushta, 17, a rising senior at Brockton High School. “If the cell count is too low, you have to troubleshoot.”
As Kushta explained it, researchers will use the matured cells to develop a new vaccine regimen. Whenever Kushta finds himself uncertain about trying a new procedure, such as suctioning older solutions out of cells’ containers, he knows that Forsyth is replete with resources.
“You basically have a biology book right in your mentor,” Kushta said with a laugh.
Through rigorous training at Forsyth, interns have deepened their sense of comfort — and belonging — in STEM. Many are self-proclaimed science nerds who revel in conducting professional laboratory work.
Stringfellow, for example, said she’s always had a knack for science. Though she dreams about specializing in neurobiology, Stringfellow said she didn’t expect to begin a research career so young.
Before the Forsyth internship program, Stringfellow said, she thought of data abstractly — not as pieces of information she could create herself.
“I feel proud that I’m working on something that’s going to be used for a long time,” Stringfellow said.