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The Amgen Grant

Last summer, Dr. Matthew Wallenfang, assistant professor of cell biology at Barnard, saw a critical step in his budding research scientists’ development: The 29 undergraduates moved out from behind their lab benches and started meeting other researchers. “It was really a revelation for them,” he says. “Business schools emphasize networking and talking to people—and these skills are just as important in the sciences.”

What drew these students out of the lab was the Amgen Scholars Summer Research Program, a national program held at 10 academic sites across the United States and hosted jointly in New York by Barnard College and Columbia University. Aimed primarily at students considering a career in scientific research, the Amgen Scholars program at Barnard and Columbia teaches participants that being a good researcher also means developing networking skills and learning to present scientific findings persuasively. “The program helps move them beyond the academic world and into the real world,” says Wallenfang, who co-directs the program with Dr. Alice Heicklen, a lecturer in Columbia’s biological sciences department.

The 10-week summer program—open to sophomores, juniors and non-graduating seniors—offers students the opportunity to develop their networking skills while also burnishing their laboratory credentials. (The program accepts 25 to 30 students from colleges across the United States; four to five of those spots are reserved for Barnard students.) Program participants choose their own projects, which in recent years have ranged from researching the genetics of skeletal development in chicken embryos to studying mood disorders at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

In 2008, Kristine Lacuna ’10 engaged in a research project examining the effects of caloric compensation and obesity among different strains of inbred mice—in short, whether mice with a different genetic makeup would gain weight at the same rate with a diet rich in glucose. Lacuna picked up the research where 2007 Amgen Scholar Lindsey Breinager ’08 had left off the previous year. “They were passing the torch,” says Jennifer Mansfield, an assistant professor of developmental genetics at Barnard who runs the school’s Amgen Scholars summer seminars. “Most of these projects are long-term efforts with lots and lots of people involved in them.”

Meanwhile, students are exposed to more than what’s going on in their labs. Scientists from Amgen, the California-based biotechnology company that underwrites the program, visit to discuss research in the drug-discovery field, and weekly seminars draw researchers and noted scientists such as Columbia professor Martin Chalfie, recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry. “It’s pretty eye-opening for students to see the huge range of research possibilities out there,” says Mansfield.

Weekly discussion groups give the students an opportunity to learn about each others’ research projects. The groups focus on science communication—how to talk and write about science, and how to present data effectively. A student must explain her research to the others in the group, a process, says Mansfield, that teaches an important lesson: how to discuss complex research so that a general audience can understand it. “We really try to focus on getting them fluent when talking about their research,” she says. “Scientists need to learn how to make their research accessible—and how to make it exciting.”

By the end of the session, Mansfield says students’ abilities to describe research in plain English has blossomed. “It’s amazing to see how much they all learn in 10 weeks,” she says.

Those accepted to the Amgen Scholars program are promised a busy schedule, but there is some time outside the lab. Students can tour New York, and take field trips to see the Mets play or take in a Broadway show. Mansfield notes that the field trips offer a break from the 40-hours-a-week research schedule—as well as more chances for the students to come together as a group.

The Amgen Scholars program at Columbia and Barnard stresses the importance of community building. As a result, says Wallenfang, the rigorous admissions process—only 29 out of more than 800 applicants were selected for this summer’s program—favors students who are looking to grow both inside and outside the lab. After all, says Wallenfang, “There’s more to being a scientist than benchwork.”

-by Taylor Smith, photograph by Asiya Khaki