Celebrating 30 years of SMART students

This summer, for the 30th year, Baylor College of Medicine welcomed a group of bright and curious undergraduates from across the country into its classrooms, halls and laboratories to participate in the Summer Medical and Research Training (SMART) Program, part of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

Each year, the program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to participate in biomedical research projects with Baylor faculty in a broad range of areas. Additionally, the students have access to supplemental educational activities, like GRE prep workshops, career development activities, research seminars and more.

This year, the 9-week session ended with a celebration of the program’s milestone year. Its ‘founding fathers,’ Drs. Thomas Caskey and Gayle Slaughter, were welcomed back by current program director Dr. Laurie Connor, along with current and former students and faculty mentors. Caskey, professor and founder of Baylor’s Department of Molecular and Human Genetics-Baylor College of Medicine, was instrumental in the development of the SMART program and tapped Slaughter to be its director, a position she held from its inception until 2016.

“Over the past 30 years, this program has evolved not only to provide a first class research experience but also to provide our trainees with important professional development workshops to help them make decisions about their career paths and help them develop the skills to make them successful,” said Connor, SMART program director and director of instruction in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

She highlighted some new elements of the 2018 version of the SMART program, including enhanced programing through Baylor’s Center for Career Development and Office of Student Services, led by Derek Haseltine and Reggie Toussant, respectively, and tours of Baylor’s Core Labs and their state-of-the-art instrumentation and technologies.

Connor’s goals, she explained at the event, were that each of the 89 undergraduate participants learned a new technique to add to their scientific toolbox and how to think like a scientist by critically analyzing primary data and were inspired to continue in research as they progress toward their career goals. A show of hands by the students showed that her goals were successful.

While the program’s success in summer 2018 alone is impressive, its scope of influence over its 30-year history is truly remarkable. With an average of 86 undergraduates participating each summer, that’s more than 2,500 young minds that have come through the program, each with the potential to contribute to science and research that improve the human condition. The program’s commitment to participation by students who are underrepresented in scientific research further expands its impact over the last three decades.

There are currently 30 SMART program alumni at Baylor, either on the faculty or in graduate or medical school. One such SMART alum on the faculty is Dr. Rodney Samaco, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics, who has said that he believes the SMART program was instrumental in the early days of his career development. A strong supporter of the program, Samaco mentored four SMART students in his lab over the summer.

Also worth noting is the faculty participation in the program over its 30 years. Slaughter, who even in retirement is still passionate about the program she led for so long, said that 25 percent of the Baylor faculty has been involved, either as a research mentor paired with an undergraduate student, or by leading organized discussions and seminars or by guiding participants on tours and lab rounds.

The program currently is supported by various sources, including the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, part of the NIH, the Department of Defense Prostate Cancer Project, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, NCI-P30 with the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, BUILD Consortia (UTEP), the Children’s Nutrition Research Center and through grants obtained by individual faculty mentors.

“The success of the program is due directly to the fact that it will always be led by people who love science and medicine, and of course due to the incredible undergraduate students that we continue to bring in year after year,” Slaughter said.

The application portal for the summer 2019 SMART program will be open from early October through Jan. 1. Learn more on the SMART website.