08 Aug

My first opportunity in biomedical research has just concluded, and I have earned vast experience and extensive insight into the field of renal biology and disease. The Aspirnaut™ program, the internship I participated in this summer (2022), has provided me with valuable lessons and a new outlook for my future.

Located at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville, TN, the Aspirnaut™ program, founded by Dr. Julie Hudson [Vanderbilt U.] and Dr. Billy Hudson [Vanderbilt U., Google Scholar], is aimed at providing high school and undergraduate students an experience in the biomedical sciences. The program is funded by the smaller institute of NIDDK within the Kidney, Urologic, Hematologic (KUH) Division of the NIH. Learn more here.

Furthermore, at the conclusion of the program, internees have the opportunity to present their research works at the KUH Undergraduate Research Symposium, which features internees from around the country in research programs funded by the NIDDK. 

Hence, for the majority of the summer, the Aspirnaut™ program, in addition to the research experiences, also provides enrichment sessions that guide student development and preparation for the KUH Symposium. While research is imperative for a successful internship, these Aspirnaut™ organized sessions are prioritized by the program, meaning research hours must be scheduled around these meetings.

The program events include scientific writing lectures, poster crafting sessions, psychological thriving skills, everyday fitness training, health and wellness sessions, luncheons with distinguished honorary speakers, and many more. Each will be discussed extensively below.

The bulk of the Aspirnaut™ internship, nonetheless, is the research experience. After a week of preparatory training that exposes internees to basic research technique and procedure (see Arriving at Aspirnaut), students will be introduced to their new lab, research mentor, and the research project they will be working on. 

Also, it must be noted that, because the program is funded by the NIDDK, most research projects are centered around the topic of renal biology and disease. Furthermore, for high school internees, projects are often provided by Dr. Billy Hudson in the Hudson lab. Undergraduate projects, on the other hand, are more diverse and are provided by many different labs at VUMC.

Moreover, students are expected to reach a minimum of 40 hrs. per week (full-time). The program hours include both the research experience and the program events (except for fitness). Collectively, the Aspirnaut experience offers professional career development and the opportunity to conduct basic research.  

By the end of the summer, interns will have received an enormous amount of research experience in the basic sciences, allowing them to understand the forefront of scientific investigation and opening them to a newer perspective on the larger picture of research. The internship is truly transformative, and I am grateful to be able to share the experiences with you here.

The Educational Mission of the Aspirnaut Program

The Aspirnaut™ Program began in the rural town of Grapevine, AR, about fifteen years ago (2007) under the highly esteemed Dr. Billy G. Hudson and Dr. Julie Hudson. The generous efforts of the Hudson’s have provided disadvantaged and underrepresented students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the various fields of science and technology (STEM).

Interestingly, before the Aspirnaut™ program became the highly rewarding biomedical research experience as it exists today, it had once started as an educational STEM intervention taking place on elementary school buses! 

Previously, the young students of Grapevine would have patiently awaited their arrival at school for one hour on the bus. Hence, the mission of the Aspirnaut program was to provide these students with an online, mentored STEM education on the bus that otherwise would not have be available to them. To do this, the buses of grapevine were equipped with WiFi, internet devices, and learning tools imperative for the student learning.

Over time, this generous initiative of the Hudson’s had made a huge difference on school children and has inspired many young students to pursue studies and careers in STEM. The geographic diversity and demographics of internees over thirteen years of collected data (2009-2013) can be viewed bellow.

Personally, I am quite proud to announce that I am the first West Virginian intern of the Aspirnaut™ program, as seen by the difference in the demographic map before and after commencement of the 2022 Aspirnaut™ program summer. 

Additionally, the program’s impact has even been acknowledged on nationally broadcasted news stations. The first airing of the Aspirnaut™ program’s impact has been showcased on the Making A Difference segment of MSNBC news in 2008.

Recently, a fifteen year follow-up on the Aspirnaut™ program was aired on NBC Nightly News on 2 August 2022. This news segment features both Dr. Billy Hudson and Dr. Julie Hudson, along the 2022 Aspirnaut intern (a fellow intern peer of mine this summer), Lauren Taylor, who has been a part of the Aspirnaut™ program’s tremendous impact. Watch their stories here.

It is truly extraordinary the difference a program has made on people’s lives. Dr. Billy Hudson, a former Grapevine resident himself, often shares his personal story at the beginning of the program as one of the first distinguished speakers. Though, his story will not be shared here, as this is an adventure that must be told by the speaker himself (so join Aspirnaut™ if you are willing to hear Dr. B. Hudson’s amazing life journey).

All in all, I feel truly honored to have been selected as an Aspirnaut™ intern in February of 2022. Today, it has truly presented me to the world of science discovery and the amazing career of biomedical scientists. I have inherited a new perspective in science and medicine that will always be cherished along my courageous journey of becoming a physician-scientist myself.

The Aspirnaut Experience

After the commencing week of the Aspirnaut™ program, internees will have gained introductory laboratory experience, develop an understanding of internship life, explore the importance of science safety, understand the prominence of research integrity, and be formally introduced to their laboratory for the summer.

All of this preliminary experience is crucial for interns to build a foundation for their research during the summer. See the previous Arriving at Aspirnaut blogpost for more.

The first official week of research begins the following week, where students will gain a deeper understanding of the works of their lab and the research project they will be working on through the program. 

This summer, I have been assigned to the Pozzi lab of the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension where, collectively, the research team studies the underlying disease mechanisms of kidney fibrosis. The Pozzi lab, under the principle investigator Dr. Ambra Pozzi, Ph.D. [Vanderbilt U., Google Scholar], has particularly focused on Discoidin Domain Receptors, a collagen activated receptor tyrosine kinase, and their role in disease progression. 

For my project, I have been tasked to study the Discoidin Domain Receptor 1 (DDR1) and its relationship with the adaptor protein p66Shc to determine whether the interaction can promote oxidative stress in the mitochondria. I would be working under the astute mentorship of Dr. Gema Bolas, Ph.D. [Vanderbilt U.].

For more information, my research project will be discussed more extensively in the following section of this post. 

Meanwhile, when I am not in the lab, the Aspirnaut™ program exposes its students to career and professional development enrichment events, which range from poster presentation sessions and scientific communication lectures to wellness events and everyday fitness training. Together, these organized events, along with the research experience, encompasses the program’s long-lived mission of providing students with a holistic view of science as a professional career.

Here, I will be discussing the importance of each session below as well as provide a brief overview of a typical day in the internship. However, some special details will be purposely left out. To receive the full picture, you can either open a discussion in the forums, contact me, or explore the Aspirnaut™ program as an intern.

The first set of events I really want to discuss are the Distinguished Speaker Luncheons, which invites an honorary speaker of the VUMC research/medical faculty to openly discuss their role at the medical center, their journey through medicine, and provide essential advice into the broader career field of science and health. 

Each week, there are one or two distinguished speaker luncheons that feature, almost literally, a speaker of every single specialty or role at the medical center. Some examples of the diversity in our honorary speakers are Dr. Lucy Spalluto, M.D., M.P.H. [Vanderbilt U.], Associate Director of Radiology and President of the American Association for Women in Radiology (AAWR); Dr. Wright Pinson, M.D., M.B.A. [Vanderbilt U.], the Deputy CEO and Chief Health System Officer at VUMC; and Mr. Kitcki Carroll [USET inc.], the Executive Director for United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. (USET), as well as other luncheon speakers that are not listed here. 

There are many extraordinary individuals, each with their unique story that cannot be fully, accurately portrayed in this post. They each play critical roles for the running of the hospital, the continuation of science investigation, and for the better good of medicine. Even for the three aforementioned speakers, those brief descriptions only touch the surface of their larger role here at VUMC.

Nonetheless, every distinguished speaker the program has invited has brought extraordinary insight and professional advice to the internees. It absolutely cannot be stressed enough how invaluable, how significantly impactful these luncheons have on its student attendees.

One particular speaker I wish mention, moreover, is Dr. Alp Ikizler, M.D. [Vanderbilt U., Google Scholar], the Chief of the Division of Nephrology. At the luncheon featuring Dr. Ikizler, Dr. B. Hudson was supervising the internees in the auditorium, and at the conclusion of Dr. Ikizler’s presentation was an opening for questions. Dr. B. Hudson asked Dr. Ikizler why he had chosen to take time out of his schedule to speak to undergraduate interns? 

Dr. Ikizler’s response was so moving, so inspiring that it caused me, and surely every intern in attendance, to internally go “wow!” Honestly, I do not recall exactly word-for-word his response to the question, but essentially this was the message:

I wouldn’t trade this opportunity for the world. There is nothing that I could be doing right now that is better than speaking to this audience, because what stands before me is the next generation of clinicians and medical scientist. They have the power and the potential to make a difference, and I see it as my job to help guide these young men and women on the right path toward a successful future in medicine. ~ The essence of Dr. Ikizler’s message.

The essence of Dr. Ikizler’s response was very inspiring, and made me realize that he is here as our speaker because he genuinely sees value in us as the future of medicine and biomedical research. 

I am almost certain that all other speakers, if asked, would have given a similar, if not the same, response to Dr. B. Hudson’s question. Though, having heard it from Dr. Ikizler, this will become a treasured moment that I will remember for the remainder of my developing career. This is what a true mentor is, and if I were to ever become a distinguished individual myself, I would wish to emulate Ikizler’s values on any of my student’s potential.

Conclusively, all of the distinguished speakers this summer have provided invaluable insight and told incredible stories about their journey through medicine or biomedical research, or both, and I have genuinely appreciated their generous devotion to the program and us as undergraduate pre-med students. These events, to me, have been one of the most insightful experiences of the Aspirnaut™ program.

Next, the program also offers Science Communication sessions to prepare internees for the KUH Symposium poster presentation and to teach students the importance of effective writing, graphical design, and presenting.

These events encompass a variety of different topics crucial for successful writing in science, ensuring that the message is getting through to the target audience. 

The primary subset of events occur about once every other week and are poster prep. or oral presentation sessions under the instruction of Dr. Tetyana Pedchenko, Ph.D. [Vanderbilt U.]. These lectures serve as an initial guide into what a scientific poster is and how oral presentations should be constructed, with special regards to the KUH conference. 

In the concluding weeks of the program, these sessions will often be geared more toward how to present at the conference. There will even be a couple of practice sessions beforehand so internees can give and receive advice and constructive criticism. This has been very helpful.

The other following events under the topic of science communication are exclusively provided sessions (either paid for or due to a special tie into the program) instructed by highly esteemed professionals of their field. Hence, I will only give brief overview of these lectures, as they are genuinely unique and should rather be experienced as an intern of the program.

The program offers graphic design lectures instructed by Dr. Aaron Fidler, Ph.D. [Vanderbilt U., Google Scholar], who is a Berea College alumni and a medical writer. During Dr. Fidler’s lecture, internees will learn some essential elements into graphical design, poster presentability, external design tools, and much more. These events have provided me with inspiration and advice for the design of my poster and presentation.

Additionally, the program also provides three lecture events and a personalized abstract review session with Chief Editor of Nature Reviews Nephrology, Dr. Susan Allison, Ph.D. [Nature Journal]. Here, Dr. Allison invites students into a three day interactive lecture session that goes deep into Abstract writing and a bit into publishing, reproducibility, peer-review, and more. The writing skill I have attained here has been truly invaluable and will help me tremendously in the future.

Yet another, invaluable session provided by the program is a four hour instruction on effective writing in science lectured by Dr. Joshua Schimel, Ph.D. [UC Santa Barbara, Google Scholar]. Although Dr. Schimel is a environmental scientist, his workshop on science writing has become a coveted convention recognized on a national scale amongst professionals of all fields. His famed book titled Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded is an excellent guide and framework into writing effectively in science. The essential items that are taught in Dr. Schimel’s presentation are truly a magnificent and will help me a ton in my future.

Conclusively for science communication, the array of subtopics and lessons that have been introduced and extended upon by these highly revered individuals is an experience that even the most prestigious graduate programs and medical colleges would be fortunate enough to have. Truly, I find it quite incredible that a high school and undergraduate program has the ability to offer such resources for our professional development. This is, yet, another example of how Aspirnaut™ is making a difference in its internees young careers.

Lastly, another aspect of the program is Psychological Thriving, Health, and Wellness. While the events under this topic are not research orientated, they are crucial benefits into an internee’s summer at the Aspirnaut™ program. These resources will help guide students through the lifestyle of an internee and allow them to better themselves as they explore their futures.

Furthermore, the events in this category expose students to the fundamentals of a successful, happy lifestyle, and explore the balances of work and everyday life for a busy scientific/medical professional. 

It must also be noted that, most certainly, there will be instances in the internship where the responsibilities and tasks may become overwhelming, but these resources are aimed a detoxifying that stress and teaching students how to manage their capacity in both a productive sense and a mental one.

Now, the first event I wish to mention occurs every Tuesday and Thursday evening of the week and is the only optional event (upon reason, that is). Everyday Fitness with Coach Rachel Baugh is a workout session that challenges internees to compete with themselves to become physically and mentally better. Coach Rachel [Wiki Page], M.S., OLY, a former competition swimmer, Olympic gold-medalist, and a former world record holder, has designed the workout program around the use of elastic bands. These sessions have helped with strength building, balance, and physique.

Secondly, another event, which is also instructed by Coach Rachel, is Wellness for Life. These lecture sessions occur about once or twice a month and offers internees with insight into how to be their best selfs. There is great detail, and even personalized advice, into how personal wellness and internal happiness can be achieved.

In addition to wellness, the Psychological Thriving Skills lessons instructed by Dr. Richard Taran, Ph.D. [PsychologyToday] invites students to look at their life through a different perspective. These sessions occur less frequently (about once a month), but Dr. Taran also holds psychology appointments available every Monday of the week for students who wish to attend. I have found Dr. Taran’s lectures, along with the guiding instruction of Coach Rachel, to be genuinely helpful into how I look at my life and the life of others.

Lastly, particular to undergraduate interns, there are College Counseling discussion events guided by Cynthia Nash, B.S. [Counseling Website], founder of Amazing Journey College Counseling ©, who has provided extraordinary, personalized advice to interns about how to be successful through college and life. This summer there was only one session (another being canceled), but I had learned many new things about time management, an area all interns claimed they could use a little help in.

Altogether, I have found all the lifestyle, health, and wellness events that the program has provided to be very helpful to me as a student. It has exemplified the most ideal mode of professional development to become the best version of myself for the future. 

Conclusively, looking back on everything this summer that the Aspirnaut™ program has invited me to be a part of, I am truly astounded at my transformation. This has been one of the greatest periods of professional growth for me, and I believe the fundamental pieces of what I have learned this summer will translate well into my career for years to come.

My Research Project

Intentionally left blank. Until the results of the research conducted by the Pozzi lab are published, there will be no information dispelled here for protection of the intellectual property of Dr. A. Pozzi and colleagues.

Concluding Discussion

Reflecting over this past summer, I have witnessed an enormous period of growth, of professional development, and of personal perseverance and career excellence amongst my peers and myself as internees of the Aspirnaut™ program. The opportunities and resources provided here are, in my honest opinion, truly unparalleled by any other program I know.

What has been instructed here by research mentors, distinguished speakers, professionals of all fields, and, of course, the entire Aspirnaut™ team of directors and founders will forever become a foundational set of skills, insights, and experiences that students will one day implement into their future careers.

Furthermore, looking at the experience another way, to be accepted as an intern of the Aspirnaut™ program is to be discovered for your potential, and a 10 week, $12,000 investment will go into your career development as an undergraduate. Absolutely unbelievably amazing!

Realizing the program’s generous devotion to my success, I am genuinely grateful to have interned with the Aspirnaut™ program, and I could only hope that you, if you desire the career of biomedical research as I do, will consider this truly transformative experience.

You won’t be disappointed.

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