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For The Love of Science

While many students are enjoying a break from the books this summer, four Baltimore city youths are spending their time working on complex experiments in labs at Johns Hopkins University. The students are participants in the Biophysics Research for Baltimore Teens (BRBT) program. In its second year, the program, funded mainly by the university and the Mayor’s office, is designed to give disadvantaged youths more exposure to the sciences.

Candice Jennings, a rising senior at Carver Vocational Technical High School, qualified for the paid internship program because she lives in a low-income section of North Avenue. Jennings, who wants to be an anesthesiologist, was assigned to work in a lab alongside Dr. Julie Takacs, a visiting scientist at Johns Hopkins.

On a recent morning, Jennings was mixing a specific drug with yeast to determine if the mixture changed the way proteins are produced. “We do readings on the yeast after it makes proteins to measure the amount of protein produced and see if the way the proteins are produced changed,” she said.

Takacs said the experiment may lead to a new prescription drug someday. “We’re basically doing drug discovery,” she said. “From start to finish (this) can take about 20 years from what we’re doing right now if we find something that could be useful for humans as a prescription.”

Takacs praised Jennings grasp of science concepts and said she work s independently on most of her assigned experiments. “She’s absolutely phenomenal. She’s a steady worker and absorbs this stuff like a sponge.”

This is Jennings second year in the program, which she says is exposing her to a level of science she’s never experienced. “At Carver, we only get basically a quarter of chemistry, which doesn’t really help much, so this is a basis of everything and is preparing me for college,” Jennings said.

That’s the program’s goal, said director Dr. Jungsan Sohn, a Hopkins biophysical chemistry professor. “We approach this program as a lifelong career plan so they can go out and be successful,” he said.

Toward that goal, each student has a lab professional, faculty member and undergraduate student as mentors. They take math and science classes weekly in addition to their serious hands-on lab work. “These kids will be witnessing the cutting edge discovery process. We’re not repeating someone else’s experiment but they will learn cutting edge science to expand their horizons,” Sohn said.

Intern Tyren Day, who once wanted to be a brick mason, said the program has changed his life. “It not only helps me with science, they help outside the lab and during the school year. They help with lab techniques or if you’re struggling in a class like calculus or any type of math or science class, they help with that too,” he said.

Day worked last summer, after graduating from Carver, in a biophysics lab purifying cells and cloning genes. He just completed his first year at Baltimore County Community College in Catonsville and this summer is assisting with experiments on DNA repair proteins. “In high school, you don’t get to do a lot of these cool things or work with high-tech machines in a lab.  I love having this opportunity,” he said. He hopes to transfer to the University of Maryland Baltimore County to major in chemistry.

Day qualified for the internship because he lives in a high-crime, low-income area with his younger brother and sister. His mother deployed to Afghanistan this week, so he’s the head of the household. He said people in his community are supportive and proud of his aspirations. His siblings think what he does is cool. “They don’t know what science is. They were like what, you’re about to cure cancer? I said, ‘not yet but hopefully,’” Day said with a laugh.

He said some of his high school friends saw him as an oddball because of his love of science, but that never bothered him. “It didn’t get to me because I had great support from my family, teachers and community folks who told me to keep my head up,” Day said. However, intern Jennings said she is not as comfortable talking to her friends about her science studies. “They might not understand what I’m saying and I don’t want to make them feel less of a smart person. We’re all on the same level. I don’t want them to think I think I’m better than them.”

Director Sohn said they encourage the interns to see science as cool and OK to discuss with others. He predicted the interns will all be great scientists, but said even if they don’t, the solid science foundation they get in the program will be  important for whatever field of work they choose.

After the program ends in mid-August, the students will present their experiment results to scientists and others at Johns Hopkins Institute for Biophysical Research.