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Changing Aspirations, One Summer at a Time

Changing aspirations, one summer at a time

Beloit College student Azeez Ganiyu was not sure what research entailed as he prepared to spend his 2023 summer break in a laboratory at the Ƶ (MCW).

“I had heard good things about MCW and its summer programs,” says Azeez. “So, when my school sent me information on the ASPIRE program, I applied even though I was more interested in becoming a doctor than a scientist.”

The MCW Cardiovascular Center runs the Advancing Student Potential for Inclusion with Research Experiences (ASPIRE) program. The program’s co-directors are Ivor Benjamin, MD, director of the MCW Cardiovascular Center and principal investigator on the NIH R25 grant that funds the ASPIRE program; Joy Lincoln, PhD, associate director of the MCW Cardiovascular Center; and Malika Siker, MD, associate dean for student inclusion and diversity at MCW. The summer program focuses on providing mentorship and hands-on cardiovascular research opportunities to undergraduate students with backgrounds that traditionally have been underrepresented in the health care and biomedical research workforce. ASPIRE was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in April 2023 before the first ASPIRE summer program in May.

MCW ASPIRE Program | Azeez GaniyuThe program offers housing near MCW at Wisconsin Lutheran College to participants from communities beyond the Milwaukee area. Azeez arrived there in late May and began working with his mentor for the summer, Pablo Nakagawa, PhD, assistant professor of physiology.

“Azeez initially wasn’t considering a career in research,” Dr. Nakagawa notes. “So, I took it as a personal challenge to introduce him to the ways researchers develop questions, design experiments and analyze data, and to do so in a way that would keep him engaged and excited.”

One of the experiments Azeez focused on during the summer involved studying hypertension in mice to improve scientists’ understanding of the renin-angiotensin system known to control blood pressure and maintain fluid and electrolyte levels. The Nakagawa lab is studying mice genetically engineered without the genetic blueprint for the renin enzyme in their brains, which allows for experiments to determine if and how this modification affects normal physiological responses such as blood pressure and heart rate.

Throughout the summer, Azeez learned a very delicate procedure for measuring blood pressure with a tail cuff that required great care and precision to obtain accurate, standardized measurements. Azeez also took daily care of the mice, including meticulously tracking their blood pressure, heart rate and weight.

“I think Azeez felt a bit like a doctor to the animals, and he took excellent care of them,” says Dr. Nakagawa.

“The analysis of the data that we collected was the most interesting part,” observes Azeez. “I also gained an appreciation for everything that goes into collecting quality data. You have to be consistent and vigilant every step of the way.” Dr. Nakagawa has submitted a manuscript that includes Azeez as a coauthor for peer review and potential publication, making Azeez the first ASPIRE participant to contribute to a prospective scientific paper.

“It turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with a student,” adds Dr. Nakagawa. “I found out just how curious he is. As that is the main driver of success in the sciences, I made sure he knows my lab’s door is always open to him.”

“It was a match made in heaven,” adds Azeez. “It was one of the most outstanding mentorship experiences I’ve ever had. And I feel like I gained a second family at MCW.”

Training students to be physician scientists

MCW ASPIRE Program | Pablo NakagawaAllison DeVan, PhD, MA, scientific administrator at the MCW Cardiovascular Center, is the architect of that family environment for ASPIRE participants along with program manager Erin Theriault, MS. Dr. DeVan designed the program to emphasize mentorship, support and exposure to a wide variety of experts and careers in biomedical sciences and allied health. ASPIRE also serves as prep for medical school or a pathway for students with a general interest in gaining research experience for STEMM career.

“The feedback from the first summer has been meaningful and encouraging,” says Dr. DeVan. “One trainee said the experience changed her life. Others said they now felt like they had a home and a direction to pursue.” Dr. DeVan’s team is committed to learning from the surveys participants completed so they can enhance the experience and better support the students in future summers.

“I would like to commend Allison and her team as well as the students and mentors who made the first ASPIRE summer such a success,” says Dr. Benjamin. “These are the kinds of programs we need to improve opportunities for the next generation of healthcare and research professionals.”

For Azeez, there is no doubt in his mind that the ASPIRE experience has expanded his career aspirations.

“I could see myself being a physician-scientist one day.”

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Community Front Door  / Cardiovascular