Ashlee Simmons ’16 Participates in National Scientific Research Program

MICDS senior Ashlee Simmons ’16 was selected from a national pool of more than 400 applicants to participate in the National Institutes of Health (NIH)/ National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) high school Short Term Research Experience for Underrepresented Persons (STEP-UP).

The STEP-UP Program provides hands-on summer research experience for high school students interested in exploring research careers in the biomedical, behavioral, clinical and social sciences. The program provides exposure to the core NIDDK mission areas of diabetes, endocrinology and metabolic diseases; digestive diseases and nutrition; kidney, urologic and hematologic diseases.

“Research is really interesting for me because it can develop into real solutions. Once you know what the problem is, you can begin to think of ways to fix it,” Ashlee explains. “In my research, I found that patients with higher cognitive impairment have a higher VACS index, meaning that their likelihood of mortality is increased. Knowing this, we can think of ways to solve that problem.”

Ashlee’s mentor for the program was Beau Ances, M.D., Ph.D., at Washington University in St. Louis. They worked under the direction of the Charles R. Drew, University of Medicine and Science Coordinating Center. Upon the completion of her research work, Ashlee submitted an abstract and a PowerPoint presentation titled: Correlation between VACS index and frailty in HIV+ people and how it affects cognition and brain volume.

“I knew I wanted to research something related to neuroscience because that topic is so interesting to me. It’s always been my dream to become a neurosurgeon,” Ashlee says. “I also wanted to research something that affects an underrepresented population, and HIV disproportionately affects adolescent African American males.”

Ashlee received a stipend for her participation and a five day all-expense paid trip to NIH in Bethesda, MD, where she gave her presentation before NIH scientists and peer researchers and received a perfect score! She also had the opportunity to tour the museums and monuments on the National Mall in Washington, DC. She was exposed to many scientific research careers; attended a session on “Pearls of Wisdom for Getting into College,” had lunch with researchers, and had the great experience of networking with students from across the United States and its territories.

This incredible hands-on summer experience was a powerful motivator to continue exploring the world of scientific research. “Immersing myself in research taught me so much about HIV associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND) and cognition and that really strengthened my desire to pursue a career in neuroscience,” she says. “I was also able to learn from the other students at the research symposium, and met so many people of different, diverse backgrounds whom I now call friends. I really hope I can have another opportunity like this again soon!”

Mrs. Dolores Caffey-Fleming, her Coordinating Center Manager added, “I am sure Ashlee will achieve any goal she sets for herself. It was truly a pleasure working with her.”