Lighting the Path to Developmental Biology through Clear Direction Mentoring


By Brittany Truong

Last summer, I had the opportunity to share my love for developmental biology and help train the next generation of scholars via a weeklong immersive Internship. The Internship was initiated by Clear Direction Mentoring (CDM), a nonprofit organization that provides long-term STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine) mentorship for underrepresented minority students from high school through college. Along with a talented group of scientists at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, we organized this developmental biology experience for incoming college freshmen.

Our primary goal was to introduce students from diverse backgrounds to developmental biology in a fun and engaging environment and allow them to network with leaders in the field. Mikaela Follmer, the Internship Director for the Colorado Chapter, modeled it after similar internships provided by the CDM New York Chapter at New York University and the Summer Collaborative Research Experience (SCORE) program held at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.

The Internship was funded by a Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) Education Grant awarded to Julia Derk, the Board President/Executive Director of CDM as well as the 2021 recipient of the SDB Trainee Science Communication Award.

“The SDB didn’t just give us the money. They gave us mentorship support through really detailed feedback in the grant,” said Derk. “It’s opened up this whole new chapter for how CDM can really provide more immersive opportunities for our students. ... If we mentor a couple of students and they mentor a couple of students [and so on], we can really build this very large network of amazing scientists.”

“We got really supportive comments, and members of SDB were really excited about CDM from the grant,” said Follmer. “It’s reaffirming to know that they’re super supportive and rooting for us.”

The Internship was targeted towards incoming college freshmen because there are few research opportunities for graduating high school seniors. “We realized that we have a duty to be this bridge for students between high school and college,” said Derk. “Reading the scientific literature, you see that we lose talent in STEMM, particularly from diverse and marginalized communities, right at these key transition points between middle school and high school, high school and college, college and graduate school.”

During the weeklong Internship, students began each day listening to short didactic lectures on diverse subjects within the scope of developmental biology. They discussed the pros/cons of traditional model organisms used in developmental biology, horizontal gene transfer in bacteria, derivatives of neural crest cells, and the optics used in advanced microscopy. These lectures primed the interns before they performed experiments in the lab.

At noon, we held “Lunch and Learn” sessions that gave the interns a chance to network in a casual environment with scientists at different levels, including lab technicians, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, professors, and physicians. It was empowering to listen to the scientists’ stories and see their success from often humble origins. 

“My favorite part was talking to the developmental biologists and learning about their journeys and how they got to being in the field,” said one of the interns in an anonymous survey.

Following lunch, the interns started their afternoon lab exercises. They learned how to stage model organisms, such as zebrafish, fruit flies, mice, and planaria, which were kindly provided by the labs of Kristin Artinger, Emily Bates, Julie Siegenthaler, and Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, respectively. The interns also conducted regeneration experiments on planaria, dissected the craniofacial skeletons of zebrafish, and learned to image mouse neurons and glia on confocal microscopes.

“It was such a great opportunity to experience what a professional lab setting is like, and I even got to use lab equipment, which was incredible,” said another student. “I heard about the Internship by chance, and I am so grateful for the opportunity.”

Although the Internship was primarily focused on learning the science of developmental biology, we also included leisurely activities. These included a field trip to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, outdoor yard games, trivia, and a hike at Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre. The goal of these outings was to underscore the importance of maintaining a work/life balance.

The entire experience provided the students with their first full-time internship, making them more competitive for future research programs. Upon completion of the program, interns are automatically eligible for the Summer Research Training Program (SRTP) at the University of Colorado Anschutz, an 8-week long paid research experience for underrepresented minority undergraduate students. In addition, interns are encouraged to later apply for the SDB Choose Development! program, another paid internship for students from diverse backgrounds interested in pursuing research careers in developmental biology.

Finally, CDM paid SDB membership dues for the interns, which means they are officially part of the developmental biology community. For undergraduates, benefits of a membership include reduced registration fees for SDB regional and national meetings; free journal subscription to WIREs Mechanisms of Disease; eligibility for poster competitions and travel awards; and a platform for professional engagement with an international group of developmental biologists.

Derk said, “It feels really good to be recruiting people into SDB because it feels like a place where I personally feel very safe, cared for, respected, and empowered. It’s good to know that that’s where we’re sending our students.”

On a personal note, it was an honor to have helped organize the CDM Internship. The students’ enthusiasm was contagious and their questions were insightful. I was most impressed by their dexterity in the lab. Many of the students mastered microscopic zebrafish tissue dissections within an hour, which took me months to accomplish! I loved being part of CDM and introducing these bright, young students to the world of developmental biology. Regardless of where their careers take them, I am grateful to have been part of their story, and I am looking forward to hearing about their future successes.

Last Updated 06/01/2023