The summer 2022 session of Yale Summer Undergraduate Medical Research (SUMR) is officially underway; faculty at the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) have opened their laboratory doors to students from across the United States who are interested in developing careers in kidney, urology, and hematology research.
Through the Yale SUMR program, undergraduate students are given the opportunity to engage in hands-on research in both laboratory and clinical settings, attend a wide array of didactic teaching sessions led by the program’s faculty mentors, participate in various social activities, and present their work to faculty and peers at the end of the ten-week rotation.
YSM is one of eight institutions funded by the R25 NIH-NIDDK/KUH grant, which aims to introduce young learners to modern methods of kidney, urology, and hematology research and foster a greater interest in these areas. The Yale SUMR program is led by Shuta Ishibe, MD, professor of medicine (nephrology), who has served as the program director since its inception in 2014.
“It has always been a part of Yale’s DNA to mentor and advocate for students at a young age,” said Ishibe. “It’s great to be able to give back to undergraduates who are interested in doing research and possibly make a difference in their careers.”
As the SUMR Program Director, Ishibe pairs each student with a senior postdoctoral fellow from YSM departments, such as Internal Medicine, Urology, Genetics, Cell Biology, Cellular and Molecular Physiology, and Epidemiology and Public Health within the Yale School of Public Health. Under the supervision of these accomplished and dedicated mentors, students will join an established research team to tackle fundamental scientific questions and practice a range of research techniques.
Michael Caplan, CNH Long Professor of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, and chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, joined the SUMR program in its very first year as a faculty mentor. This summer, the student working in Caplan’s laboratory is using molecular biology techniques in cultured cell lines to help identify a small section of the polycystin-1 protein that may be an effective therapy for polycystic kidney disease.
According to Caplan, “The students usually come in with a modest background in research, so I meet with them extensively at the beginning of the summer to find out what they’re interested in and how much experience they’ve had. Then I assign them to someone in my lab who can serve as their lab bench mentor. I check in with them on a regular basis to see what kind of progress they’re making, and to see how well they are understanding their project, both at a theoretical and at a technical level.”
Elena Wilson, first-year MD-PhD student at YSM and former SUMR participant, said she received exceptional mentorship during her summer research experience at Yale. Wilson worked with Whitney Besse, MD, assistant professor of medicine (nephrology), Stefan Somlo, MD, CNH Long Professor of Medicine (nephrology), and their cohort of patients with polycystic kidney disease to examine the effect of copy number variations in certain genes. that are linked to the disease.
“Both Dr. Besse and Dr. Somlo were incredibly supportive. Whitney particularly was an amazing role model as a woman in science, and what it looks like to be a physician scientist. I didn’t really think about nephrology as a career more seriously until I did this program,” said Wilson.
Outside of their research projects, the undergraduates also participate in a formal 10-week series of didactic sessions led by the faculty mentors, who present their respective research subjects, the techniques they use, and why they decided to be physician-scientists.
To conclude the summer, students write an abstract and create a poster to summarize their research projects and present their work at one of the various institutions funded by the R25 program. According to Wilson, “It was a lot of fun to present and get feedback. The mentors from Yale and the other institutions were very supportive and treated us as colleagues, as scientists. It was cool to be asked questions and have something to show for our work over the summer.”
Throughout the SUMR program, participants are also offered a wide variety of social activities like laser tag, paint nights, and ice cream socials. At the end of the summer, the students are invited to the Yale Outdoor Education Center to enjoy a weekend of paddle boarding, kayaking, and barbequing.
None of the social programming would be possible without the help of Anne Prodoti, senior administrative assistant for nephrology. Not only is Prodoti responsible for all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into processing student applications, making travel arrangements, organizing lectures, and setting up social events, but she is also the first point of contact for students throughout the summer.
“The students will email back and forth with me all the time with questions and problems,” she said. “I tell them if they need anything during the workday or outside of the workday to contact me because most of the kids are coming from out of state and have no family or friends in the area. So, I try to always be available for them.”
“Anne is the program mom,” added Wilson. “She cares about all of us so much, and she holds the program together 100 percent. Anytime we needed anything, whether it was just to talk and hang out, or a piece of candy, we could go see her and she was always so helpful.”
Overall, Ishibe and his team of mentors hope that the SUMR program will inspire young learners to pursue graduate or medical school at research-intensive institutions focusing on kidney, hematological, or urological research, and equip them with the skills required for successful research careers.
“My job as a mentor is to serve as a role model for how you think about scientific questions,” said Caplan. “In science, the intuition that you have to develop is how to take a body of information, recognize a question within it, and extract that question and phrase it in the form of an answerable interrogative. That’s what I try to model for my mentees and train them to do.”
“I try to impart something that will hopefully make them interested in kidney research,” said Ishibe. “It is satisfying to see young students who are extremely bright and motivated, knowing that this is our pipeline of people who want to have a career in research. My colleagues and I have a finite amount of time that we are going to be here doing research. So, when we retire, we will know our work is in good hands.”
Former undergraduate and current MD-PhD student Wilson can attest to the impact that Yale’s SUMR program can have on young researchers. “I credit my summer experience with preparing me exceptionally well for my medical school applications. I also think it was a good way to get my feet wet and do research full-time to see if I actually liked it before committing to a program. Even if I don’t end up going into nephrology as a career path, I think I’ll have a much broader appreciation for the discipline and what nephrologists are responsible for, and the importance of them as part of the care team for patients and the conditions that they manage.”