August 26, 2023
For many of us, summer breaks in college were a welcome respite from the rigors of study, or an opportunity to earn and save a little money for the next school year.
For 14 undergrads from universities across Georgia, summer 2023 was an altogether different experience.
They’re the GRA Student Scholars, and from May to August, they worked between 25 and 40 hours a week in the unfamiliar world of labs and clinics, making real contributions to funded research projects. They engaged with some of Georgia’s top-echelon scientists and immersed themselves in team culture.
And they learned – a lot.
“I was fortunate to be surrounded by scientists with a great deal of wisdom for aspiring chemists,” says Ben Chiok, a third year at Emory who worked with GRA Distinguished Investigator William Wuest. “This internship taught me more about chemistry and myself than any other experience I’ve ever had.”
“My internship experience was amazing,” reports Quinkivia Williams, a Paine College student who joined the lab of GRA Eminent Scholar Neal Weintraub at Augusta University. “While putting together presentations, I learned how important it is for engagement with the community to help reduce cancer disparities in different races.”
Part of GRA’s Workforce Development Initiative, the GRA Student Scholars program opens new lab internships to students from groups that are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) study. The idea originated with the GRA Academy of Scientists – in January 2020, they began to explore ways to create opportunities in research for underrepresented students who had limited experience.
The research experiences vary widely. This summer, Kuria Mureithi analyzed molecular data from seawater samples at UGA as part of a multi-institutional research project on the ocean’s carbon cycle. Samhitha Venkat used high-powered computers at Georgia Tech to simulate chemical reactions. And Rya Nuckles "trypsinized" cells in a Clark Atlanta lab renowned for its exploration of prostate cancer.
“It’s critical that the science and innovation workforce of tomorrow have people from all backgrounds and walks of life,” says Amanda Schroeder, GRA’s VP of community relations and marketing. “The GRA Student Scholars get the chance to explore a STEMM discipline in the lab or clinic. But they also get something more – the opportunity to experience a real workplace and develop all kinds of important skills. That experience helps get them ready for the world after college.”
Three students — Oumy Gueye of Emory, Teiona Laster of Georgia State and Williams Babalola of Morehouse College — worked in the Single-Subject Research Lab at Marcus Autism Center. They supported a research project exploring what’s behind problem behaviors in children with autism. The assignment exposed them to different protocols and methods and helped them hone professional skills as well.
“In the beginning, these students had to navigate a brand-new position,” says Sarah Freeman, program manager at the center. “They had never worked with kids who have special needs or dealt with caregivers. By the end of the summer, all three were taking a lot of initiative and managing their time independently.”
The arrangement was a first for the Marcus Autism Center — it had previously relied on undergrad volunteers to assist with research studies. “But the volunteers were only able to work 10 hours a week,” Freeman says. “Having the GRA Student Scholars 25 hours a week helped us achieve more, plus it gave them time for professional development and to explore the ‘why’ behind what they were working on.”
GRA Eminent Scholar Neal Weintraub also hosted three students in his lab this summer. The trio – Montana Cagle, Quinkivia Williams and McCalyster Turner – are all enrolled at nearby Paine College.
Now in its third year, the program has expanded from summer to the entire academic year, thanks in part to the support of AT&T, the Coca-Cola Foundation and Georgia Power Foundation.