Randy Martinez, a 17-year-old student from Washington Heights, is a self-proclaimed science geek. So it was only natural that he was selected to become a BRAINYAC—that is, one of a handful of highly motivated New York City public high school students who are placed in one of the neuroscience labs at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) for six weeks of intensive mentored research. The program, started in 2013 at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute with funding from the Pinkerton Foundation, gives students an intimate look at how research leads to transformative discoveries. Students are taught the science communication and lab skills they will need to function in a scientific research environment.
To date, BRAINYAC has graduated 47 students, according to the institute’s education program manager, Chidinma Paige. While BRAINYACs hail from all over the city, from upper Manhattan to Staten Island, each has demonstrated a profound interest in science or medicine.
Randy became intrigued with medicine at an early age, when his younger sister was born with a rare inflammatory condition called Kawasaki disease. “I didn’t know much about my sister’s illness, but I remember that she was always going to the hospital sick and leaving healthy,” said Randy. “That made me curious to find out what was going on.”
At around the same time, he became hooked on neuroscience after watching “Gifted Hands,” a film about pioneering African American neurosurgeon (and presidential candidate) Ben Carson. “As one of the first people of color in neurosurgery, Dr. Carson had to overcome all of these barriers,” said Randy. “He had an incredible perseverance that made me determined to get into an operating room someday.”
Noticing his interest in science, Randy’s fifth grade teacher encouraged him to apply for the NewYork-Presbyterian/CUMC Lang Youth Medical Program. The six-year Lang program offers weekend and summer science classes for exceptional, science-minded New York City public school students.
“The Lang program teaches students about biologic and neuroscientific concepts that aren’t typically covered in high school, giving them the knowledge and lab skills they’ll need to participate in BRAINYAC and helping them determine if they are interested in pursuing a career in science or medicine,” said Christine Ann Denny, PhD, assistant professor of clinical neurobiology (in psychiatry) at Columbia’s College of Physicians & Surgeons and Randy’s mentor. “The experience is great for these students. It allows them to come into the lab and talk about the brain at a more sophisticated level.”
The path to reach Dr. Denny’s lab was fulfilling, but it wasn’t without some challenges and sacrifices. From sixth grade on, Randy devoted Saturdays and summers entirely to the Lang program—time that ordinarily would have been spent hanging out with friends or visiting family in the Dominican Republic.
And despite all of his hard work, Randy admitted that he felt a bit intimidated when he arrived in the lab last summer for the BRAINYAC program. “I was working with postdocs—everyone seemed to have a PhD and be brilliant. They were speaking a language I didn’t completely understand,” he recalled.
Working closely with Alejandro Cazzulino, a recent graduate of Columbia College, Randy learned how to operate the lab’s highly sensitive confocal microscope. Randy’s work was instrumental in developing a new drug to improve scientists’ ability to label individual memories in the brains of mice. This new protocol could be used for understanding the pathogenic loss of memory, i.e., dementia.
“The most fun part of the apprenticeship was doing the research and operating the microscope, which had about a dozen switches to turn it on,” beamed Randy. “I also got to connect with everyone in the lab and learn about the different paths that led them to do neuroscience research. These experiences really strengthened my resolve to become a scientist.”
In addition, Randy will appear as a co-author of a paper detailing results of the lab’s study—an honor that is rarely bestowed on high school students. The paper, titled “Improved specificity of hippocampal memory trace labeling,” is currently in press in the scientific journal Hippocampus.
But while the BRAINYAC program gave Randy some tangible results that will help him in his path toward med school, Dr. Denny observed that his inner yearning to become a scientist is what counts most. “Randy’s always had this laser-like focus, so applying to pre-med programs seems really natural and well within his capabilities,” said Dr. Denny.
Apart from learning about how to work in a lab and getting to co-author a scientific study, Randy observed that the BRAINYAC program has taught him how to be resilient and resourceful—no matter what he does in life. “When you’re conducting a scientific experiment, you might work on something for a long time only to see it fail. When that happens, you look at your data and you try something new. I think this approach will apply to everything I do, in college and beyond.”