At this time each year, the 10-12 high school seniors in the Winship Summer Scholars Research Program (SSRP) usually would be shadowing physicians in the clinic, conducting experiments in the lab, attending department meetings and tumor boards, and preparing to make a final presentation for the SSRP Final Symposium held every year at the end of the program.
Due to COVID-19, this year looks a lot different for Winship's Summer Scholars students. Instead of an onsite, hands-on research experience, students have been attending virtual lectures with Winship clinicians and investigators and preparing for weekly online journal club presentations, while also working on their final research project.
"The most important thing was to make sure the program is valuable, even if students aren't able to be on campus,” says Cynthia R. Giver, PhD, co-director of the program and associate professor in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology, “First, my fellow co-director, Dr. Nisha Joseph, and I decided to open up the lectures to all of our applicants who may have lost other summer opportunities due to the pandemic."
Now, nearly three weeks into the program, about 100 students attend the weekly lectures each week. The core group of 19 students is still getting an immersive experience, virtually. To do this the program piloted a new feature: weekly journal clubs where students participate in a discussion about an article that has been transformative in the field of oncology.
"The goal is to help students gain a better understanding of how research projects and clinical trials are designed and conducted," says Joseph, an assistant professor in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology. "Dr. Giver and I are there to help define and contextualize the information if the students struggle, and the session allows students to hone the presentation skills that they will use for their final project."
The core group also attends additional online sessions with invited panelists such as cancer survivors, an associate dean of admission from the Emory School of Medicine, and researchers from the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University.
Giver stresses that the virtual curriculum supports the program’s goal of giving high schools students an immersive experience in oncology research: "We want to make sure students have something to show at the end of the summer."
It was decided that the Final Symposium will still take place, but it will be held virtually and broken into two parts to accommodate the larger number of core students. Each student will give a 10-minute presentation on a topic of their choosing. The presentation is based on a research paper that students have been working on over the course of the summer.
"We created a virtual curriculum to help students create, research, write and present a comprehensive research paper," says Joseph. "We met one-on-one with students to discuss their topic ideas and outline development, and are pairing students with Winship faculty who specialize in their area of interest to provide further insight as they write and prepare their final project."
Building a curriculum has allowed the program to explore unique ways to introduce students to oncology. The final presentations will showcase what students have learned from this dramatically different program.
"Instead of cancelling, we wanted to take advantage of what having a virtual program could offer: an opportunity to explore new ways of exposing students to oncology and the ability to reach more students,” says Giver.
The Final Symposium will take place on July 9th and July 10th from 10am to 12pm Eastern Time. You can attend the event at this link.