School of
Pharmacy

Summer internship program opens high schoolers’ eyes to pharmacy research

Program introduces students to the role pharmacists play in improving people's health and well-being

Karla Perez stood, bursting with excitement, in one of the UMKC School of Pharmacy’s research laboratories.

“I’m wearing a lab coat at 16, which is not something that typical 16-year-olds get to do,” she said. “I’m getting to work in a lab with experienced people and learn from their experience and their backgrounds.”

Perez is one of four Kansas City area high school students who participated in a new six-week summer research internship program at the School of Pharmacy. The internship is supported by a Walgreens grant the school received to provide programs for the underserved and underrepresented population of greater Kansas City.

Shelly Janasz, director of student affairs, said the ultimate goal of the program is to give the students a basic idea of pharmacy, pharmacy research and drug development, as well as how pharmacists affect people’s health and well-being. The students also learned about the various career paths available to pharmacists, by talking with individuals working in the field. In addition, participants met with current students and staff and learned about the school’s admission requirements.

Guided by graduate faculty members, the students learned to apply hands-on laboratory and research methods and protocols to develop a research project. They presented their findings with a poster presentation at the culmination of the program. 

High school students Shun’nya Taylor and Ashley Rodriguez in School of Pharmacy research lab.
High school students Shun’nya Taylor and Ashley Rodriguez work together in a School of Pharmacy research lab.

“We wound up with a wonderful group of four students,” Janasz said. “They were very enthusiastic.”

Gerald Wyckoff, Ph.D., director of research and graduate studies, said he hopes their experiences will continue to pique their future interests in health professions. 

“We’re excited to have such eager students in our labs working on real projects,” he said. “Our hope is that they continue their education in a way that will have an impact, not only on them, but on the health and welfare of folks throughout the region.”

Along with Perez, participants Ashley Rodriguez and Shun’nya Taylor are juniors at Allen Village High School. Participant Dana Assaf is a junior at Ruskin High School. All four were paired with a graduate pharmacy faculty member conducting bench research. The program introduced them to working with tools of the trade such as plate readers, a mass spectrometer and different microscopes. They also learned about working in a liquid handling station, as well as computer-based study and research.

William Guthiel, Ph.D., a research professor studying antibiotics, said the internship gave the students a taste of the many different aspects of research.

“One of the things I want the students to experience is how all the things they’re learning that seem so abstract all work together,” Guthiel said. “This experience shows them how physics ties in with chemistry, how chemistry ties in with biology, how biology ties in with math. All those skills merge with the others and in order to do this kind of research, you really need to have some skills in each of those areas.”

Hi school student Dana Assaf typing at a computer
Dana Assaf works on a research presentation during a summer internship at the School of Pharmacy.

Assaf said she had read about cancer cells in her high school biology class, but the program gave her a much deeper understanding of what she was studying.

“Here, I actually worked with the cells and grew the cells in one experiment,” she said. “I had read and heard about using drugs to attack cancer cells but had never seen it before. We made medicine and used the drugs to see the effect they have on cancer. That really stood out because you can take a drug and feel better, but you don’t know what it’s doing to your body. We were actually seeing how it works in your body and what it does.”

Perez said that working in a research lab and getting first-hand experience of pharmacy research were experiences she plans to share with her classmates.

“When you think of pharmacy, you think of Walgreens,” she said. “You think of your typical community pharmacy and this is nothing like that. This is research into why things are what they are and how they are. I think that was the most fun for me.”

Published: Jul 29, 2021
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