Hillman Scholars Summer 2023

Students in a lab wearing lab coats

The Department of Ophthalmology had another successful Hillman Scholars Program in Vision Science this summer. The Department is one of six sites of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Academy program.

According to Yuanyuan Chen, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and the faculty coordinator, the goal of the program is to provide authentic research and mentorship opportunities to a diverse group of students to broaden participation in STEM, increase the quality and diversity of the biomedical workforce, and expose diverse student populations to quality career and academic preparatory experiences.

Participants are selected from over 500 applicants per year, mainly from the larger Pittsburgh area along with some national and international applicants. Over 85 percent of them are from underrepresented backgrounds, including low-income families, minorities, first-generation college candidates, people with disabilities, or those from rural areas with limited educational resources. The Department has participated since 2021 and hosts six students each year who are assigned to faculty mentors for six weeks from late June to early August.

This year, the participants included five local students and one international student from Abu Dabi. Two were YES students who participated in the program last year and returned for the second-year training.

In addition to distinguished lectures, the curriculum was enriched with weekly lectures at a luncheon round table with topics ranging from basic introductions of the eye, eye development, ocular diseases, viral infections related to the eyes, and ocular surgeries to the missions of the Eye & Ear Foundation and the UPMC Mercy Pavilion. Weekly lab courses included basic PCR, DNA gel electrophoresis, cell culture, histological staining and imaging, and dissection of rabbit eyes.

“The students did terrific jobs during their final 15-day oral presentations,” Dr. Chen said. “The father of the international scholar told me after the presentation that this summer program has greatly stimulated his son’s interest in science, and he wants to apply to Pitt next year for college studies and continue his lab training and research with his mentor.”

Records of previous Hillman scholars have shown that the program has been successful in stimulating students’ interests in pursuing higher education in STEM. Students have been admitted to Brown University, UCLA, and CMU, and some of them came back to their mentors’ labs the following years for continuous research activities.

“Special thanks to our Department Chair Dr. Sahel and the EEF, because our OPT site is funded independently from the big Hillman program,” Dr. Chen said.