High school visit gets at the heart of research

Earlier this spring, a group of Wake Early College of Health and Sciences (WECHS) high school students left their classrooms to spend the day learning about cardiovascular research. The students visited the labs of Dr. Ravi Karra and Dr. Doug Marchuk, and toured the Duke zebrafish core facility. The students, many with plans to attend graduate or medical school, listened to presentations explaining  basic concepts and methodologies of cardiovascular research work.

WECHS students examine a specimen while touring the Marchuk lab at Duke

This program came to fruition under the leadership of Dr. Maria Rapoza, executive director of the Duke Cardiovascular Research Center (CVRC), Dr. Sharlini Sankaran, the executive director of Duke’s Regeneration Next Initiative, and Sruthi Valluru, a WECHS senior high schooler.

Sruthi, like many of her Wake Early College classmates, has already taken college-level courses and has been granted experiential learning opportunities in the field of medicine through WakeMed Hospital. However, when her interests turned toward medical research, she ran into roadblocks.

“[Finding ways to interact with research] was such a tricky thing for me. I had to go out and email people or have connections…It’s so difficult for any high schooler (even though there are so many smart and capable students)…to penetrate the field of research when they don’t have the proper connections.”

Valluru hopes that launching a tour program at WECHS will help her peers gain first-hand exposure to medical research. After working in both a Duke-based start-up and research lab, Valluru’s career interests turned towards medical research as a platform to transform the lives of so many. She will be studying biomedical engineering at North Carolina State University beginning this fall semester.

a few of the WECHS students with CVRC Director Dr. Howard Rockman

Valluru emphasizes the collaborative nature of research. “As we bring more people to the field, we are creating a wider community that can help us move forward in discovering new things.” Exposing students to the work of research laboratories early on in their careers helps broaden the pipeline of scientsts and cultivate interest and talent in young people.

Students enjoyed walking through Duke’s winding halls of countless lab facilities and touring Duke’s beautiful medical campus. “One of the things I enjoyed the most was the bus ride home listening to the excited chatter of my fellow classmates about how much they enjoyed [the tour],” Valluru noted.

Popular culture often portrays researchers as socially awkward science nerds who work in a dimly-lit basement. The societal conceptions of research work are not aligned with the reality that researchers enjoy rich social lives and span a wide range of types of research.

Many WECHS students expressed that participating in the tour changed their perspectives on the research work. One student said, “This isn’t what I expected research to be like. I expected research to be this one person working by themselves.” At the end of each lab visit, WECHS students asked the lab members for contact information, eager to continue learning about research work at Duke.

The Duke CVRC, Regeneration Next Initiative, and WECHS team would like to thank everyone who made this program possible. The team looks forward to scaling future collaborations to a wider scale with high schools and research universities across the Triangle area.

Guest blog post by Jacqueline Xu, Duke Department of Medicine undergraduate intern.

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