New program pairs high school students with graduate researchers at VCU

Anna Kovilakath, left, and Kaya Smith in the lab at VCU.
Anna Kovilakath, left, and Kaya Smith in the lab at VCU. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Kaya Smith wants to attend medical school, so when an opportunity arose for the Henrico High School student to spend two weeks this summer working in a laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, she did not hesitate to take it.

“My counselor told me about it and I thought it would be a nice opportunity,” said Smith, a rising senior and aspiring surgeon. “My school focuses a lot on research, especially with the [International Baccalaureate] program. In my high school biology class, we worked with lipids and bacteria growth. I felt this research opportunity would be nice for me to get a broader experience working in a lab.”

Smith is conducting research related to heart disease alongside Anna Kovilakath, a third-year Ph.D. student in the VCU School of Medicine. They were paired through a new program called RAM Opportunity that matches high school students in Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico public schools with graduate researchers at VCU. The program, piloted last year through the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, is run by VCU’s Graduate School, and provides research and mentoring opportunities for participants, said Melissa Tyler, assistant dean of the Graduate School. 

“It’s an opportunity for the high school students to collaborate with master’s and doctoral students and it gives them an idea of what higher education is all about,” Tyler said. “And it’s an opportunity — if they have a special interest — to work hands on and get experience that can help them learn more about where they want to take their academic careers.”

Smith and Kovilakath are two of four participants this summer. Portia Newman, a doctoral student in the School of Education, is the RAM Opportunity program coordinator. Newman said the length of the program — 40 hours over two weeks from July 15-26 — provides a way for high school students to experience a research project already underway.

“It feels like a test run, to help them explore what they can do with their interests,” Newman said. “And this is work the graduate students are already doing. It’s a way for the students to see what’s happening in real time.”

Kaya Smith and Anna Kovilakath standing in the student lounge on the MCV Campus.
Smith, a rising senior at Henrico High School and aspiring an surgeon, learned about RAM Opportunity from her school counselor. "I felt this research opportunity would be nice for me to get a broader experience working in a lab,” she said. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Kovilakath and Smith are working with sphingolipids (a type of lipid). They are growing heart cells and measuring the effect of either removing or adding a specific sphingolipid called SPTLC-3, Kovilakath said. 

“We’re going to analyze the results and see how that affects the heart cells,” she said. “Does getting rid of that [sphingolipid] improve the heart cells, or does increasing it improve it?”

The work has ties to heart health, specifically to myocardial ischemia, which occurs when blood flow to the heart is reduced, preventing it from receiving enough oxygen.

Smith said she was nervous at first, but has quickly grown comfortable in the lab.

“It’s nice to do some research and go further in depth,” Smith said. “And hopefully that helps me as I go to college and start taking lab classes — and beyond that as I continue to pursue my dream of becoming a surgeon.” 

Abhay Dharanikota, a rising junior at Godwin High School, is also participating in RAM Opportunity this summer. Dharanikota is working with Janay Little, a third-year Ph.D. student in the School of Medicine. They are working with DNA to clone bacteria as part of Little’s research into issues related to E. coli. 

“It’s hands-on, so [in the future] I can come back to the lab and know what I’m doing — how different machines work and know procedures and techniques,” said Dharanikota, an aspiring orthopedist.

Abhay Dharanikota, left, and Janay Little, in the lab at VCU.
Abhay Dharanikota, left, and Janay Little, are working with DNA to clone bacteria as part of Little’s research into issues related to E. coli. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

VCU students and high school students interested in RAM Opportunity can contact the Graduate School at RAMOpp@vcu.edu. Newman said the Graduate School will likely begin matching applicants for summer 2020 in late fall of this year. Though the program is starting small, Newman and Tyler said it has potential to grow quickly given VCU’s breadth of academic programs and the size of the Richmond region’s high school systems. With that growth, Tyler said, would come a need and an opportunity for sponsorship — both within VCU and outside the university. 

“That’s going to be a key to growing this,” Tyler said.

Little, Dharanikota, Smith and Kovilakath will present on their work July 25 at a luncheon celebrating the conclusion of the program. For Little, who one day hopes to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or as a medical science liaison, RAM Opportunity has been a way to continue her work and share knowledge with others.

“I’ve always liked interacting with people who want to learn something new,” she said. “I feel like the whole point of learning is to teach somebody else at some point.”