South Bronx Students Get Hands-On Learning with LIJ Microbiology Research

NEW HYDE PARK, NY -- Kavita Bhikhi, a student at Hostos-Lincoln Academy in the South Bronx, will be able to apply what she learned from a microbiology project performed in collaboration with Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Medical Center when she studies biology in college next year.

Ms. Bhikhi spent two years taking part in the Students Modeling A Research Topic (SMART) team at her high school. She says she would eventually like to work in genetics, focusing on diseases. “I think it will be rewarding in my future career to find the answers to some of the questions I’ve had about genetic diseases,” she said. “Being part of the SMART team has given me more practical biochemistry knowledge than I would have otherwise gotten in high school.”

 Hostos-Lincoln Academy junior and SMART team member Hillary Ramirez hopes to use the knowledge she gained from the program and pay it forward by becoming an oncologist. She says she wants to work in South America to help people receive higher-quality care.
 As part of this year’s program, Ms. Bhikhi, Ms. Ramirez, seven of their classmates ranging from sophomores to seniors, and their teacher, Allison Granberry, visited LIJ Medical Center’s clinical microbiology laboratory in March, seeing firsthand how a clinical laboratory functions, all the while asking questions about the future of antibiotic development and how bacterial infections are treated and controlled in the hospital. This year’s SMART team learned about methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the cause of many antibiotic-resistant staphylococcal infections, with the help of Lars Westblade, PhD, medical director of clinical microbiology at LIJ Medical Center, Mary Ann Haran, manager of epidemiology at LIJ Medical Center, and Dwayne Breining, director of pathology and laboratory medicine at LIJ Medical Center.

 The SMART team students designed a 3D model of the protein molecule, PBP2a, that causes Staphylococcus aureus to become resistant to the -lactam group of antibiotics (which includes penicillin) and are among the most commonly-used group of antibiotics. Their work, including the protein model of PBP2a, will be presented at a SMART team symposium at the prestigious Rockefeller University in Manhattan and at the general American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology meeting in Boston. To complete this project, the students worked for three hours each week after school throughout the academic year with research scientists, microbiologists, physicians and infection control experts.

 “The goal of the SMART team program is for students to focus on a particular protein molecule and develop a project that deals with any and all areas related to that protein molecule,” Dr. Westblade said. “It is a fabulous means by which to expose high school and undergraduate students to the research process. I want to take students on a journey to understand infectious diseases, the problems associated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the remarkable work that scientists and healthcare professionals, including those at LIJ Medical Center, do to treat and prevent these bacteria from spreading.”

 Imparting knowledge to these students about the research process is important to Ms. Granberry and Dr. Westblade because it gives these students an opportunity to get hands-on, direct research experience that is invaluable for their future education. Dr. Westblade is proud that many students from the 2010 SMART team program he participated in, again with Ms. Granberry, received scholarships to prestigious colleges in part due to the experience they gained from the SMART team initiative.

  Also participating in this year’s SMART team program - made possible with assistance from Hostos Community College and a $25,000, two-year grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation - were Dr. Joel Sussman from The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Dr. Andrew Lovering of the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.


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