Sanford PROMISE celebrates 10 years of learning by doing

Students see new career ideas while researchers see fresh perspectives in the lab

A young woman in a lab coat and gloves reaches for test tubes on a bench at Sanford Research.

A little more than a decade ago, Sanford Research developed an initiative to connect communities in the region with the science and research being done in its labs.

Sanford PROMISE has since then established an outreach system. The ultimate goal is to inspire the next generation of problem solvers by providing a wide-ranging array of educational resources and programs for students and teachers.

Providing young people a chance to see what researchers do and give them hands-on roles in seeing the life of a scientist up close has been part of that effort via a program known as PROMISE Scholars.

For 10 weeks students spend time working with scientists at a Sanford Research lab. For many, the experience has served as an inspirational first step to a career.

Summer program to MD-PhD program

Jenny Jin was one of those high school kids who started out curious about what it would be like to be a scientist. A student at Brookings High School at the time, she heard from others who had participated in the PROMISE program and eventually was accepted for a summer position that would allow her to help in a cancer research lab.

“That was my first exposure to really rigorous and exciting research in the biomedical world,” she said. “Honestly, it set me on the path to where I am today.”

Where Jin is today is medical school at Columbia University in New York pursuing both a medical degree and a Ph.D. It’s a dual academic challenge that will eventually lead to a career that includes both clinical and lab settings.

“It’s going to be a long path of training,” she said. “Ultimately my goal is to be both a physician and a scientist. I want to be able to treat patients and do research at the same time.”

Promise of pre-med

Morgan Sorensen is a first-year resident anesthesiologist at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago who got her undergraduate degree at Augustana University and her medical school degree at the University of South Dakota.

Sorensen, who will be spending the next three years in Chicago completing her residency, wanted to go into medicine since she was a kid. She saw a notification about the PROMISE program one day and decided it might be something she would like.

“It seemed way more fun and way more beneficial to my future career than working at a grocery store,” Sorensen said. “So I decided to try it out and I actually ended up really loving it.”

A summer with the PROMISE program reinforced career aspirations for both Sorensen and Jin. Working with people who did it for a living made the difference.

Steering students to scientific careers

“We’re talking about high school students so a lot of the time they’re not 100% sure what they want to do,” said Tamara Ledeboer, manager of Sanford Research education programs. “This program has really helped steer some of these students toward a scientific career. They come in and they learn so much. They’re really able to see what the life of a scientist is like. That has really created a passion for some people.”

Louis-Jan Pilaz, director of the PROMISE Scholars program is also a Sanford Research scientist who, according to his lab’s Sanford webpage, “studies the cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate the development of the cerebral cortex and how their disruption can lead to neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism and microcephaly.”

In other words, undeniably complex work. And yet, his affiliation with the young people who come his way with the PROMISE program is a great part of what he does for Sanford Research.

“I tell students who come in that they can be very helpful because they have fresh eyes,” Pilaz said. “They’re not biased by knowledge we already have. Science textbooks are not always the ground truth. They’re the ground truth at the time they’re written. I encourage students to not worry so much about not knowing everything. In some ways it can be an advantage because they can bring new insight into what we’re studying.”

Sharing science with the community

Participation in the PROMISE program can lead to a career in science. But it also serves as an effort to give the community a look at what Sanford Research is accomplishing.

“Part of our mission is providing education with additional science education outreach,” said Kara McCormick, PROMISE program director. “In addition to the PROMISE Scholars program, we’ve created a platform that allows our researchers to routinely share with the community their experiences and the work they’re doing.”

That includes visits to schools, allowing visitors to the labs and lending equipment to schools that enable classrooms to conduct experiments similar to what takes place in a Sanford Research lab.

“Research is something that doesn’t get a lot of exposure like a clinical setting might,” McCormick said. “With this program we can offer insight and experience into actual scientific research. It’s going to broaden the scope of what those students may be looking for in a future career.”

‘Surrounded by real scientists’

Pilaz was drawn to his profession by a great appreciation for what he calls “the beauty of science.” Like his colleagues, he is called to serve in several roles as a scientist. Some of that involves looking through a microscope, yes, but there is much more to it.

“When you get to actually experience it, you realize how diverse the job is,” Pilaz said. “We perform experiments, we visualize data, we look through microscopes, we write articles, we make posters, we go to conferences, we make presentations. We don’t do the same things over and over.”

Jin remembers her first days involved in the program as daunting but also intriguing. She was not asked to do all the things scientists do right away, of course, but she got a taste for many of the roles associated with medical research.

“I was intimidated and nervous just to be in the lab surrounded by real scientists,” she said. “But they were very welcoming. My mentor was really nice and answered every question I had, no matter how stupid it might have been. I didn’t think I’d be able to contribute a lot but they took me seriously when I was presenting data. It was a great experience.”

PROMISE stays with students

As Jin and Sorensen continue to advance in their careers as doctors, they take with them invaluable perspective in the role research plays in delivering health care. It all started with a summer as a PROMISE Scholar where they were learning by doing.

“The drive for me professionally is to help people clinically and working with them one-on-one but I’d also like to contribute to the knowledge base that will help more peoples’ lives in the long-term,” Sorensen said. “That’s the great role of research and in developing new scientific knowledge. You have no clue exactly how your research is going to be added to or how it’s going to grow into something that could help a lot of people.”

PROMISE program managers keep track of their scholars as they progress in their careers after participating. What they’ve discovered is that the experience stays with people, no matter what they end up doing.

“We provide them with a great foundation of what it’s like to be a scientist,” Ledeboer said. “Even if they don’t end up doing that, they learn some critical skills of knowing how to ask questions and how to problem-solve with teamwork and collaboration. That’s something they can use in any career.”

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