Published Aug 10, 2009 4:57 PM
For the second summer in a row, something amazing is happening in the laboratories at the UCLA School of Dentistry — and it's not simply cutting-edge science.
No, it's meaningful scientific research projects conducted by African-American and Latino teenagers from Los Angeles-area high schools, under the supervision of dental school faculty mentors — many of whom are dentists and Ph.D.s with prestigious grants from the National Institutes of Health. It's all part of a grant-funded program seeking to address a national shortage of minority dentists.
High schooler Autumn Nailes is trying to determine whether a DNA sample can remain stable for long periods without refrigeration (a "green" initiative that also would have practical applications for field research where electricity is not readily available).
Students Bellín Enriquez and Kemi Oyewole are cataloging the properties exhibited by stem cells in the hope of finding new ways to re-grow bone (Could we heal breaks faster? Or restore form and function to people who lose part of their jaw to oral cancer?).
Chelcee Baker is blending a cocktail of antibodies trying to find the best mix that may someday result in a new pharmaceutical.
"Chelcee is formulating good questions, demonstrating that she understands the science," says Anahid Jewett, Chelcee's mentor and a professor of oral biology. "She will have an easier time in college because she is not going to be intimidated by the material."
Nine floors up, high schoolers Jamal Matthews and Rigo Martínez are helping scientists in the saliva-diagnostics laboratory to transition from working on mouse stem-cells to human ones.
"They work harder than I do," teases their lab mentor, Dr. Jeff Kim.
All joking aside, Jamal, Rigo and their three peers from Paramount, Moreno Valley, Pacoima, Rialto, Long Beach and other L.A.-area neighborhoods are making the most of their opportunity.
That's exactly what people at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the UCLA School of Dentistry are hoping for, because there is a nationwide shortage of dental professionals — and dental students — from underrepresented backgrounds.
In 2007, the UCLA School of Dentistry was the only dental school in the country to win one of the HHMI's Biomedical Research Institutions Initiative grants. The nearly $750,000 award distributed over five years enables the school to implement an extensive pre-college science education program to introduce gifted high school juniors and seniors from disadvantaged backgrounds to careers in oral health and scientific research.
As part of the dental school's outreach to community organizations, it partners with College Bound of Greater Los Angeles and Project GRAD Los Angeles to identify high school students who are interested in the sciences and encourage them to apply.
For some of these students, a future in the sciences seemed far-fetched only a year ago. For others, the only scientific career they had ever considered was that of medical doctor. Most of the soon-to-be high school seniors had no idea that dentistry and laboratory science go hand-in-hand.
This unique two-year program — punctuated by a campus summer immersion experience during which the students live for six weeks in UCLA dorms — may just open their minds, and pave smooth paths for their futures.
"In two years, we already have made great strides in expanding the pipeline for future dentist-scientists in the African-American and Latino communities," explains Marvin Marcus, chair of the dental school's division of public health and community dentistry, and project director of the HHMI grant.
"Five of our 'year one' students were accepted to UCLA for the fall semester, and all of them are going to college with the intention of continuing to study science. We're looking forward to the college applications of this next group, and hope we can improve on last year's results," adds Carl Maida, an adjunct professor in public health and community dentistry and the co-director of the grant.
Both Emilio Frías, who will commute from his home in the San Fernando Valley to UCLA to major in biology, and Michaela Scott of Cerritos, who is entering UCLA "undecided," credit their participation in the program with helping them achieve their goals.
"I think those were the most important six weeks in my high school years," Frías says.
Scott agrees. "When I went back to high school, I felt advanced," she said.
Frías, Scott and the rest of their first-year cohort will travel to San Francisco to present their findings at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science Pacific Division’s annual meeting this month. But it's September 21, 2009 that they're really looking forward to. That will be their first day back on campus — as members of the UCLA class of 2013.