FDA Invites Students to Sharpen their Research Skills

By: Nysia George, Ph.D., and Tom Powers

NCTR Intern Claire Boyle, a graduate student from Florida State University

NCTR Intern Claire Boyle, is a graduate student from Florida State University. Get this and other NCTR photos on Flickr.

Biology. Chemistry. Bioinformatics. Toxicology.

Practical, hands-on laboratory work is important for all college students who want to become scientists—but, for many of them, such experiences are out of reach.

That’s one of the reasons why every summer, our National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR)—FDA’s internationally acclaimed toxicological research center in Jefferson, Arkansas—hosts a special internship program for science students interested in toxicology research.

The 2014 program was exceptionally successful for both the students and the Center.

Applications poured in from more than 200 students pursuing a variety of majors in universities from coast-to-coast. The competition was intense, and the 21 selected students came from schools in 13 states. But they were all alike in two fundamental ways: they were top students, and were eager to hone their scientific skills in real FDA laboratories.

NCTR Intern Luis Valencia, a senior from Texas A&M University

NCTR Intern Luis Valencia, is a senior from Texas A&M University. Get this and other NCTR photos on Flickr.

During their 10 weeks at NCTR, the students worked on projects varying from the development of bioinformatics and statistical methods for RNA sequencing data, to evaluating effects of silver nanoparticles in plastic food containers. They conducted in-vitro experiments; examined effects of nicotine treatment; gained lab experience in cell culture; and were trained in computational modeling or statistical programming.

Each student’s experience was unique and addressed the student’s interests.

The interns gave the program top grades. For example Claire Boyle, a graduate student from Florida State University, said about the lab work: “I like it a lot more than classes. There they tell you that you can do research once you get into the real world. I’ve never had an opportunity to do that before coming here [to NCTR], and that’s the aspect of the program I like best. It’s given me insight into what I want to do for the rest of my life!”

Luis Valencia, a senior from Texas A&M University, echoed similar praise. “This isn’t some pointless classroom assignment; this is the FDA. Something you discover [in this lab] could save a life.” He continued, “I’m having a great experience at NCTR. [My NCTR mentor] let me design my own experiment and helps me a lot. I’m already on my second trial and we’re getting good results.”

The internship program, which was partly funded by the FDA’s Office of Minority Health, is one of the many ways NCTR reaches far and wide to strengthen the scientific foundations of our agency. We engage with scientists within FDA and across other government agencies, industry, and academia to develop scientific information that is vital for sound regulatory policy. We cooperate with colleagues abroad to advance international standardization of regulatory science. And we’re mindful that all quest for knowledge starts with education.

If you are a science student interested in toxicology research, or if you know someone who is, it’s not too early to consider the NCTR’s 2015 internship program. To qualify for admission, a candidate must meet the GPA requirements and provide evidence of success in science courses. He or she will also need letters of recommendation and a personal statement describing his or her research interests.

If you believe you have what it takes, you could be among the select few chosen to join us in the summer of 2015. Applications are accepted throughout the month of February. We look forward to your application!

For more information about the program go to: Summer Student Research Program (NCTR)

For more information about the FDA Office of Minority Health go to: Minority Health

Nysia George, Ph.D., is the National Center for Toxicological Research’s Intern Program Coordinator.

Tom Powers is the National Center for Toxicological Research’s Communication Officer.

FDA Voice interviews Paul C. Howard, Ph.D, on Nanotechnology

FDA Voice: Thank you for taking time to discuss the exciting field of Nanotechnology with us.  We’ve heard so much about Nanotechnology – what is it exactly and why has it been tagged as the second industrial revolution?

Paul C. Howard, Ph.D., Dr. Howard:  Thank you for the opportunity. It’s been tagged as the “second industrial revolution,” because of its ability and promise to create new materials with new properties.  Decreasing larger-size materials down to sizes in the nano domain may change the properties of these materials. This could have enormous benefits in many arenas. That’s why there is considerable worldwide investment and research for product performance improvement, usefulness, and marketability using nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating materials on a scale so small that they can’t be seen with a regular microscope. The technology could have a broad range of applications, such as increasing the effectiveness of a particular drug, improving the packaging of food, or altering the look and feel of a cosmetic.

Nanotechnology could also be used in medicines designed for the detection, treatment, and prevention of disease; food production and preservation; water decontamination and purification; environmental remediation; lighter and stronger materials for construction and transportation; and energy resources such as solar cells and fuel-efficiency additives, just to name a few.

FDA Voice: Is Nanotechnology considered a new field?

Dr. Howard:  Nanomaterials are not new. They have been around as a result of natural and man-made processes for a long time; however, the ability to see and the ability to manipulate matter at the nanoscale are relatively new.

Nanotechnology draws from several science fields like physics, material science, supra-molecular and polymer chemistry, interface and colloidal science, as well as from the chemical, mechanical, biological, and electrical engineering fields.

FDA Voice: If nanotechnology-sized particles are so tiny, how can you actually see them?

Dr. Howard: The best light microscopes you can look through with the human eye get close to seeing materials on the nano scale.  However, to best view nanomaterials, electron microscopes are needed.

Typically, “transmission” electron microscopes – either like an X-ray, where the electrons go through the material – or “scanning” electron microscopes – which bounce electrons off the surface of the object to give stunning three-dimensional images, are used.

Another type of microscope is the atomic force microscope. Fundamentally, it is a bit like an old phonograph, with an arm with a tiny tip on the end (stylus) and it “feels” along the surface.  When it encounters a nanomaterial, or larger, it deflects, giving a measure of its height.

At the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) and the adjacent FDA Office of Regulatory Affairs laboratory, we use all three types of microscopes to image the smallest nanomaterials.

FDA Voice: How does  nanotechnology impact FDA research?

Dr. Howard: Nanotechnology can be used in FDA-regulated products and we are aware that materials that exist in the nanoscale may have unique properties, and thus may warrant examination.

FDA participates in research programs with collaborating federal agencies to understand the behavior of nanomaterials in biological systems, especially any risk of short- or long-term toxicity.  FDA also collaborates with the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which serves as the central point of communication, cooperation, and collaboration for all Federal agencies engaged in nanotechnology research.

FDA Voice: Finally, please tell us about the Nanotechnology Core Facility at FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research.

Dr. Howard: FDA is investing in an FDA-wide nanotechnology regulatory science program that further enhances FDA’s scientific capabilities, including Laboratory Core Facilities, to support regulatory science.

FDA’s Nanocore facilities are located in Maryland and at FDA’s Jefferson Laboratories just south of Little Rock, Arkansas. The Arkansas Nanocore facility is a joint effort between FDA’s NCTR and Office of Regulatory Affairs’ Arkansas Regional Laboratory. Both facilities are co-located on the Jefferson Laboratories campus.

Nanocore has been designed to support research scientists by providing the equipment and knowledge to characterize nanomaterials. Nanocore also anticipates the needs of scientists by being involved in developing methods to detect nanomaterials in biological samples following the use of nanomaterials in biology experiments.

Characterization is very important in any science endeavor, especially research where you are trying to understand the relationship between an object and its good or bad properties when it is in a biological system.

For example, characterization for nanomaterials includes the average size, the aggregation (where they stick together to form a larger mass), shape, chemical composition and purity, surface area, chemistry properties on the surface, chemical/electrical charge on the surface, and stability.  A good description of these is at Characterization Matters,  Nanocore experts work with scientists who need to understand nanomaterial behavior or toxicity and support the work of other scientists who investigate the safety of nanomaterials that may be used in FDA-regulated products. We also characterize the nanomaterials before, during, and after biology or toxicology experiments. Since the equipment and expertise are centralized into this core facility, FDA Nanocore operations also serve as a training resource for FDA regulatory scientists in nanomaterial characterization and detection methods.

Anyone interested in more on nanotechnology can find a wealth of information on FDA’s website, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), and the National Science Foundation.

Paul C. Howard, Ph.D., is the Director of the Office of Scientific Coordination and Director of the Nanotechnology Core Facility at FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research near Jefferson, Arkansas.