Girl Power

An interactive camp at GW’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus is providing Loudoun County female students with a wealth of career ideas.

female students in lab
June 24, 2010

By Julia Parmley

“It’s really interesting.” “A great experience.” “Probably the best part of my summer.”

These are just some of the phrases used to describe a summer program at GW’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus. Genomic Opportunities for Girls in Research Labs (GO GIRL) is a free hands-on science program for female students enrolled in Loudoun County Public Schools June 21-25.

Created and run by three female professors in pharmacogenomics—Nancy Skacel, GW assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology and health care sciences, and Amanda Munson and Tracey Nickola, assistant professors in Shenandoah University’s Department of Pharmacogenomics—GO GIRL provides opportunities for young women to increase their understanding of the fields of molecular biology and genomics, participate in experiments and encourage their academic interest in science.

When they began brainstorming GO GIRL, Dr. Skacel says she and Drs. Munson and Nickola wanted to replicate the “positive mentoring experience” they had while they were in school.

“As three female faculty members in pharmacogenomics, we thought we saw an opportunity to provide a camp for girls interested in science,” says Dr. Skacel. “We saw a niche and thought we could fill it in a fun way, and we feel we’ve created a program that will go on for many years to come.”

“My decision to pursue a career as a scientist and professor was strongly influenced by women scientists that mentored me in college,” says Dr. Nickola. “Being a female scientist does not mean being locked a dark laboratory 24/7; you can be a scientist and still be a wife and mother. I wanted to educate these young ladies on what scientists and doctors do, and the powerful technology that we use in health care and forensics.”

Supported in part by a grant from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the two-year-old program is a partnership between GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy at Shenandoah University and Loudoun County Public Schools.

This year, 18 students participated in a number of interactive experiments, including working with fluorescent proteins, genotyping with Shenandoah University Professor and Associate Dean for Research Arthur Harralson, DNA fingerprinting and bacterial transformations. Dr. Skacel says students are given basic laboratory training when they arrive and leave the program with knowledge of advanced techniques in molecular biology. The girls also participate in “Lunch and Learns,” where they listen to women from different biomedical fields discuss their careers in science.

“This year we’ve had a nurse, pharmacists, a pediatrician and PhD researchers talk to the girls about their fields, and the girls were very interested in these women’s professions,” says Dr. Munson.

Charlotte Lewis, a sophomore at Stone Bridge High School, says she applied to the program to learn more about biology. “So far, the program has been really interesting,” she says. “It’s been good to see how women can be role models in science.”

“We love the professors who are teaching in the program, and I’ve learned a lot in a few days,” says Priya Venkatraman, a junior at Briar Woods High School. “It’s a great experience, and I feel like it’s probably one of the best parts of my summer.”

Students were accepted through a competitive application process in which a desire to learn was the key criterion. “We look for applicants who have an interest in science and who are enthusiastic about learning,” says Dr. Skacel.

“I've always loved being in lab and learning things hands on, and I’ve found it even more enjoyable mentoring young scientists,” says Dr. Munson. “GO GIRL lets me do both and share my love of science and lab with young women who have an interest in science. The camp requires a lot of energy, but it’s a fun filled week, for sure.”

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