On the Pulse

The Next Generation of Researchers: SCRI Summer Scholars Program Provides Path to Science Careers

8.10.2023 | Colleen Steelquist

This story is part two of an On the Pulse series. Read part one here

A class at SCRISeattle Children’s Research Institute (SCRI) is one of the nation’s leading pediatric research facilities, with talented investigators who have made stunning breakthroughs in their ongoing efforts to help every child live a full, healthy life.

Working to inspire and develop the next generation of talent in research and medicine, Seattle Children’s has introduced innovative programs like the SCRI Summer Scholars Program (SSSP), offered by the Science Education team in partnership with Seattle Children’s Center for Diversity and Health Equity.

In 2023, SSSP welcomed 49 new students, out of more than 500 program applicants. Over nine weeks, the Summer Scholars are assisting with 44 lab and clinical research projects involving 39 principal investigators.

“The scholars are outstanding, but we are focused as much on who would get the most out of the program and not just who has the strongest research background,” said Destiny Williams, SSSP program manager.

The students learn about lab safety, ethical considerations, developing research questions, scientific writing and more while embedded on research teams, culminating with presenting their research at an abstract and poster session. They also participate in weekly professional development sessions ranging from networking and professional branding to touring research facilities.

“Students seeing others who look like them or who share similar backgrounds who have been successful in their research careers helps them sense they belong and have a pathway forward toward their goals,” Williams said.

It’s often not a short-term relationship: From last year’s cohort, 44% of scholars stayed involved with the research institute, with 13 hired into permanent roles and nine continuing as research students for college credit or as volunteers.

On the Pulse introduces a few of the 2023 Summer Scholars:

Amina Hilfi

Amina Hilfi just graduated from University of Washington (UW) Bothell with a degree in health studies. She is the oldest of five siblings and the first in her immigrant family to attend college, where she conducted both lab and community research.

Aiming to be a pediatrician, Hilfi is prepping for her medical school admission test while working this summer in the lab of Dr. Shannon Oda in the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research. The lab studies how the body’s defense system can better fight cancer and develops strategies to improve cancer treatments by making immune cells smarter.

In the Oda Lab, Hilfi created a cell line to ensure stable production and proper functioning of a virus, and she and another scholar designed their own experiment.

Hilfi is grateful to be part of SSSP and its focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in science and medicine.

“It’s often challenging to pursue medicine as a hijabi female,” she said, recalling college STEM courses with mostly male students. “This opportunity gives me the chance to represent who I am and to inspire others to participate in this program without hesitation. It’s validating and motivating to know that others recognize my talents and are willing to support my growth and development.

“The most thrilling part of this internship is being in a place where potential cures are being developed. It may not always be easy or fast, but every obstacle and challenge we face in the lab is contributing to someone’s future treatment,” she said.

Zöe Johnson

Zöe Johnson started college in their home state of Texas, taking a break to train service dogs how to recognize symptoms of medical emergencies like heart rate irregularities and diabetes complications. “Witnessing the positive impact of this unconventional approach on the quality of life of people with disabilities reinforced my interest in the exploratory nature of science,” Johnson said.

They completed an associate degree at Seattle Central Community College and will transfer to the University of Washington this fall.

Johnson is assisting with experiments in the lab of Dr. Mark MajeskyCenter for Developmental Biology and Regenerative Medicine, which investigates therapies for kidney disease and organ repair. They have found the lab team welcoming and supportive.

“I remember being so nervous the night before my very first day in the lab, mostly worried about my lack of experience and being unsure of what I bring to the table,” Johnson said. “However, within the first hour of working with Dr. Majesky and team, I was taken aback by the passion and fulfillment they unknowingly displayed while participating in their scientific processes.”

“Even though I did not come to Seattle Children’s with the advantage of knowing my way around the lab, it was so apparent to me that everyone was learning, no matter their decades of experience. Everyone was learning and making mistakes simultaneously, and it only mattered that you met that opportunity with the eagerness and willingness to match those around you,” they recalled. “I knew without a doubt that I want to be in as engaging of an environment as I have witnessed here for the rest of my life.”

A sign at SCRIJohnson plans to attend medical school and hopes to be an anatomical pathologist. They believe it is vital for people of diverse backgrounds to see themselves and their perspectives reflected in the faces of the medical professionals in charge of their health, including those who work behind the scenes.

“As someone with many intersectional identities surrounding my race, gender and sexuality, it has always been a struggle to see myself represented in stories of success, passion and influence. This program has given me a unique sort of validation that I never knew I needed,” Johnson said.

“It really is so remarkable that a large institution like Seattle Children’s is taking such care to remind people like me they have inherent value and the potential to make impactful contributions.”

Generous support from our community makes the SCRI Summer Scholars Program possible. If you would like to help champion the next generation of researchers, please consider making a donation