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Participants in the Young Innovators Program tour the Chapel Hill Analytical and Nanofabrication Laboratory,
Participants in the Young Innovators Program tour the Chapel Hill Analytical and Nanofabrication Laboratory,

Triangle-area high school students who participated in the first summer of the Young Innovators Program at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill worked in research labs, thought critically about pharmacy practice, worked at the interface of pharmaceutical science and health-care entrepreneurship and learned how to navigate the higher education environment.

The 17 YIP interns, representing nine area high schools, spent eight to 10 weeks at UNC participating in research projects in labs across the School, taking part in panel discussions and workshops and touring scientific facilities, such as the Fujifilm Diosynth Facility in Research Triangle Park, the Chapel Hill Analytical and Nanofabrication Laboratory and the Cancer Hospital Infusion Pharmacy at UNC Hospitals.

“Our Young Innovators Program reflects the many opportunities available to students in pharmacy and the pharmaceutical sciences,” said Adam Friedman, Ph.D., director of the Young Innovators Program and institute fellow at the Eshelman Institute for Innovation.

Solving Problems with a Research Team

Associate Professor Tim Wiltshire, Ph.D., was one of the scientists hosting an intern in his lab. He said the intern helped his team as they worked to advance personalized medicine, which involves determining the right drug and dose for a patient based on individual genetic information, with a new approach called the PGx test.

Using next-generation sequencing, the PGx test examines 18 genes that are key genes that can provide information about how a patient will react to approximately 100 medicines. The lab team is generating a great deal of DNA data and developing aspects of the test, analyzing the data and figuring out how to report the results.

Wiltshire, who was once a high school science teacher, said the YIP program is important because it gives the students a chance to participate in what’s going on in labs across campus.

“Giving high school students an early view of groundbreaking science is really important for those people who might want to continue on,” he said. “I challenged them to really interact with the group and to not consider themselves just high school students coming in but to think about what’s really going on and develop ideas about it.”

YIP participants suit up for a day at Fujifilm Diosynth in Research Triangle Park, a full-scale biopharmaceutical manufacturing facility that makes products such as vaccines
YIP participants suit up for a day at Fujifilm Diosynth in Research Triangle Park, a full-scale biopharmaceutical manufacturing facility that makes products such as vaccines

Launching Companies

One intern was immersed in the School’s Office of Entrepreneurial Development under the mentorship of Dhiren Thakker, Ph.D., and Laura Tollini, Ph.D.. The intern served as a valuable consultant to a new startup founded by second-year pharmacy students supported by the Eshelman Institute.

In addition to research and entrepreneurship, interns were challenged to consider the future of pharmacy practice and the relationship between patients and pharmacists. They were tasked with interviewing pharmacists, as advised by PY2 “clinical mentors,” and developing a presentation about their original proposals to advance practice.

“High school is where you start to think about what your professional development is going to be,” said Friedman, who created the YIP program. “The recruitment and nurturing of STEM ambitions should really begin at high school, if not sooner, to show high school students that these STEM professions are for them. We need them to be the next leaders to help chart the way forward to solve the major problems facing human health.”

In Their Own Words

The interns said they enjoyed the experiences and learning opportunities the program offered:

  • “The YIP internship allows students to dive deeper into pharmaceutical and entrepreneurial fields, giving them an unmatchable experience to work with graduate students and professionals in their respective fields. It allows for learning that exceeds the typical classroom setting and style.”
  • “The most valuable part of the YIP internship is that you get exposed to what it is like to be in college and research. It’s your first taste of what things are like after high school and what it’s like to be on the cutting edge of a scientific field.”
  • “I really enjoyed the experience of being in the lab, as well as the academic pressure while here. On the first day, I realized and got to appreciate the vast amount of knowledge available to me. For me, learning about my work, creating my own project, learning about the school and meeting new people were enjoyable.”
  • “Aside from the opportunity to work in a lab with professionals, I enjoyed the panels and discussions for the high school students. Many of the students came from different schools, and it was interesting to learn about their experiences since we all worked with very different science concepts.”

Overcoming Barriers

Conversations about creating internship programs for Pharm.D., undergraduate and high school students started at an administrative team meeting in May 2015, Friedman said. With the experience of taking part in a similar program while in high school and then mentoring high school interns as a postbaccalaureate fellow and graduate student, he volunteered to take the lead on creating the program.

“We started the Young Innovators Program in an attempt to really bridge that divide between high school and higher education,” Friedman said. “By having the program on campus, the students are still in high school but they get a taste of the higher-education cultural environment at the same time.”

The program is operating on a small budget for its pilot phase and funding is coming from numerous sources, including the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, the biotech company ChemoGLO, and the UNC student chapter of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, Friedman said.

“In coming years, we really want to enhance access for underrepresented and low-income students to the resources we have here,” he said.

Friedman said the program is piloting multiple strategies aimed at overcoming barriers to access. While in pilot phase, YIP is focusing its recruiting regionally to test models that will provide interns with transportation, stipends and meals.

“These types of programs need to focus on overcoming barriers to participation and access,” he said. “It’s not enough to just not charge money; we have to provide interns with resources to give them access to the opportunities at our School.”

Extending YIP’s Impact

Friedman said he hopes to see the Young Innovators Program evolve to become a residential program in about five years that can recruit underserved students statewide and immerse them at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

Friedman said he is also considering an idea where interns could join the program when they start high school and then progress year by year in both.

“There are studies that have found that the most effective mentoring is mentoring that you receive from someone close in age and professional stage to you,” he said. “Instead of interns participating in the program for one summer, the program could instead be partnered with their normal high school progression across multiple years.

“What that would do is create this sustainable mentoring cycle where you would constantly have newer interns coming in and then advancing,” he said. “Once they become juniors and seniors, they can mentor the freshman and sophomores.”

“Having peer mentors would help underserved students — who may not have a support network at home — navigate the culture of higher education,” Friedman said, “And it would increase the duration of the intern’s participation in YIP, allowing the program to really develop, support, and nurture that next generation of leaders in the pharmaceutical and health-care fields.”


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