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Neuroscience Scholars Learn about Life in the Lab

February 1, 2008 • By Louise Cobb

The Pauletta and Denzel Washington Family Gifted Scholars Program in Neuroscience was created in 2004 by the actor and his wife to encourage student research by scholars who are early in their careers. Every summer, the program brings two students to the Cedars-Sinai to work, hands-on, with neuroscientists. This year’s enthusiastic recipients, Lindsey Ross, a second year medical student at UCLA and Debi Thomas, a junior from UC Davis, quickly buttoned up crisp new lab coats and entered the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute laboratories, ready to dive into the exciting research opportunities that awaited them.

The award came as a complete surprise for Ross.  “I hadn’t narrowed down my field to neuroscience; I didn’t think it was possible that the Washington’s would pick me,” she says.

But, the research scientist she worked alongside, Julie Ljubimova, MD, PhD, is the first to admit that this only propelled Ross to absorb everything she could while working with the team to study drug delivery and nanomedicine, essentially using tiny particles to get drugs to target hard-to-reach places, such as brain tumors. “She is one of the best students I have ever had,” says Dr. Ljubimova.  “She has the will to learn everything that is going on.”

Similarly, Thomas learned a great deal about cancer while studying the role the immune system plays in tumor growth in Dwain Morris-Irvin’s, PhD, MPH, lab. “My experience has been challenging, but very exciting and enlightening,” she says. “She is a very sharp student and she brings a breath of fresh air to the lab because she is young, competitive, very intelligent, creative and asks a lot of questions” says Dr. Morris-Irvin.

The Washington family program encourages the students to learn about what all of the neuroscience labs are investigating and both students had the opportunity to work with Keith Black, MD, chair of the Neurosurgery department and his team. “My mentors have taught me that great disappointments are often paired with the great successes of experiments,” explains Thomas.

Ross and Thomas both hope to do more work at the Medical Center in the future; Ross is now reconsidering a career in research and would like to do her neurology residency at Cedars-Sinai once she finishes her coursework. “I really love being here,” she says.  “I come in early to read articles and shadow residents when I’m not in the lab.”  Thomas can second that, “I think, eat and sleep research,” she shares. “I am tenaciously working behind-the-scenes on experiments that will, hopefully, ultimately lead to bigger and better questions, cures and treatments.”

This broad perspective is exactly what Dr. Morris-Irvin hopes the students will gain from their experience. “This program gives them a sense of what it would be like to peruse a scientific career in research.” he explains. “We emphasize rigor and constantly remind them to translate this work so it can be applicable to humans sooner rather than later.”

Copyright 2008, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

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