Spending 10 weeks in a laboratory might not sound like the ideal summer vacation for some high school students.
But for 17-year-old Hanan Sinada, who is entering her senior year at Raoul Wallenberg High School this fall, performing hundreds of hours of stem cell research as part of the fourth annual California Institute for Regenerative Medicine's Creativity Program was "the most amazing time of my life."
Sinada's research project, "Identification and Characterization of an Adult Microglia Progenitor Cell," which she presented Monday in San Francisco along with nearly 70 other students in the program, focused on the brain's microglia cells that are linked to numerous neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Sinada sought to characterize the origin of new microglia-like cells that emerge when microglia cells are eliminated, as is the case with Alzheimer's. Finding the source can bring scientists a step closer to curing the disease, she said.
Mani Vessal, director of the institute's Creativity Program, said high school students make for excellent science researchers in part because of their inexperience.
"You give them an inch, and they go miles with it," Vessal said. "They're not biased, so they think outside the box and they come up with some solutions that [for] most of my fellow scientists, it takes a lot longer to come up with."
The CIRM's Creativity Program takes about 70 high school students each summer from throughout the state and plunks them into laboratories at university research institutes such as Stanford, UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco.
Vessal received a $2.5 million grant to begin funding the program in 2010 to give high school students the opportunity to work in laboratories because "real science isn't textbook science," he said. So far, more than 220 students have participated in the program.
At least half of the students come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and each receives a $2,500 to $4,000 stipend to ensure they can focus full-time on their projects over the summer.