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A George Mason University internship program is drawing student scientists who are looking to gain a leg up this summer.

Mason physics major Joe Renaud, 21, is one of them.

“I decided to use this program as a building block for my studies in math,” said Renaud, one of 50 students participating in the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program. “Some of the stuff we’re doing is numerical math and computations in physics. ... So it’s practical.”

The free, six-week internship program, which runs through Aug. 13, is paid for through grants donated by science and technology companies such as Aerojet, Lockheed Martin and Life-Tech.

“The goal of the program is to pair them with researchers with similar interests,” said program co-founder Amy Van Meter, a research specialist at Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine. “They are working on meaningful research. … Our goal is to give the students a set of technical skills, as well as the ability to think outside of the box and think creatively.”

Founded five years ago by Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin, the program began with 12 students looking to gain lab time and academic mentors in science fields. This year, the program attracted 364 high school and college student applicants vying for the 50 spots.

Students had to submit applications, which included essays, by mid-February and interview with internship mentors in April.

During the program, students work alongside Mason staff and researchers in fields such as proteomics, genomics, medicine, neuroscience, chemistry, physics, engineering, environmental science, nanotechnology and mathematical modeling. Students are paired with mentors and researchers from the field the students want to study. The program offers students one-on-one time with these professionals, as well as access to high-tech lab equipment, Mason staff said.

“The program is [Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering] based. What we do is a combination of lecture-base and exposing them to mathematical software,” said Mason math professor Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, who serves as Renaud’s math mentor. “The [regular] education system is all geared toward ‘here are the math equations go solve the problem’ … We are so often exposed to the equations first and then given the problems. So, my goal is to help promote the application of mathematics.”

Of the students participating in the internship program this summer, 35 are high school students and 15 are undergraduates. Fairfax County students comprise about half of those enrolled in the program, with the remainder coming from nearby counties or out of state.

“The best thing about this is I have a lot of control over what I do. I get a lot out of working things out on my own,” said recent Woodson High School graduate Scott Jordan, 17, who will attend the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York this fall. “This internship is a good step above [high school STEM classes]. It feels like the next logical step.”

Many of the students participating in the program are from the region’s magnet school — Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The school requires students to complete a research project, which they submit their senior year.

Students such as junior Rohan Banerjee, 16, and senior Himika Rahman, 17, say they are using the internship program as a means to get ahead on these projects, as well as to gain ideas and research tips.

“I’d probably be playing a lot of video games,” said Banerjee of his summer plans had he not enrolled in the program. “I came primarily to pick up research skills. We’ve learned a lot of techniques in mathematics.”

Rahman is in her second summer with the program.

“The first year, I like the research process and at TJ you have to do a research project. … Mine is going to be based on what I learned here,” she said.

“I’ve always been a nerd,” said recent Battlefield High School graduate Megan Yetman, 18, who will attend the University of Virginia in the fall. Battlefield is part of the Prince William Public Schools system.

Yetman is working on a neuroscience project with a grad student studying the brains of mice as they navigate through a water maze.

“There’s only so much you can learn in a classroom. … I’m in the lab a lot,” Yetman said. “Every single second I’m in the lab, I’m doing something. … I was thrown in, day one, trying to do experiments. A lot of times, I’m testing mice in a water maze, which is basically a large tub with a platform under the water.”

Yetman said she is using the summer program as a way to test a future career and decide whether it could work for her.

“I know I’m interested in neuroscience. My brother is on the autism spectrum, so I know I wanted to do something,” she said.

Developmental neuroscience mentor and Mason professor Daniel Cox said he sees his students mature in confidence and as scientists during their time with the program.

“Even the most experienced of them come in with a lot of great ideas and then they get a dose of reality. …The good news is that doesn’t seem to diminish their enthusiasm, but instead pushes them to come up with creative ways to solve problems,” he said, adding he interviewed about 80 applicants for his two internship spots. “I’m giving them projects and things to work on that I would give a grad student. … It’s not dumbed-down in any way.”

Fellow mentor and molecular neuroscience professor Ted Dumas said students come in with varying levels of ability, but all share high enthusiasm to learn.

“The intent of the program in our lab is to simply give the students exposure,” he said. “We have seven different projects going on in the lab. So we talk about a lot of different things… [Students] come in with different skill levels. Some kids come in without having ever held a pipette. The really advanced kids come in and we talk about theory.”

Whatever their skill level, mentors say they expect great things from their interns, several of who have been published in medical or scientific journals since interning.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com