NORMAN, Okla. — The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation is known for conducting cutting edge research pushing the world of medicine forward.

But the foundation also helps train Oklahoma’s next generation of medical researchers through the Sir Alexander Fleming Scholars program. The program offers high school graduates and college students with a tie to Oklahoma a chance to work side-by-side with researchers on in-depth projects.

“It’s a very integrated research project,” said University of Oklahoma student Kari Hall, one of this summer’s Fleming scholars.

Hall said she was impressed with the level of work the program offers. None of the Fleming scholars are doing menial lab work or just following a set of instructions. Instead, Hall said her mentors helped her understand the bigger picture of whatever disease they were researching, including making sure to get a diverse group of samples form clinics across the country.

Hall, a microbiology junior and Edmond native, first learned about the program through connections at OU, including multiple learning assistants who had been in the program.

“They were just amazed by the program,” Hall said. “You learn some much, you get to actually dig in on the research.”

Hall also wanted to participate in the Fleming Scholars program because so few opportunities like it exist in Oklahoma.

Norman North graduate and Austin College junior Abigail Ballard knew she wanted to be a Fleming Scholar before she graduated from high school.

“When you talk to people from Oklahoma who have careers in science, research and medicine, you find quickly that many of them mention the Fleming program,” Ballard said. “The opportunity to do this was exciting and incredibly rewarding.”

When she got into the program, Ballard said it was even better than she imagined. She would not use much of the work Ballard was doing and the techniques she used during her research at OMRF until she was a graduate student, unless she was in a program like the Fleming Scholars program.

Dr. Umesh Deshmukh, who oversees the program and was Ballard’s mentor throughout the summer, said making sure potential medical researchers experience what it is really like to work at a lab and do research every day is why the program is so important.

“The research they do actually matters,” Deshmukh said “They are not just trained as lab assistants. They are their own projects.”

The Fleming scholars are also given daily feedback. Ballard and Hall said researchers, graduate students and lab assistants worked with them in the lab, walked them through the process of looking at results, then explained the next steps to getting their research published.

“That was a really awesome experience to get someone who is so high up in their field looking over your shoulder every day,” Ballard said.

Ballard and Hall said they were told often that it was OK if they decided after the program that medical research wasn’t right for them. Deshmukh said that is another reason that the program is so important. He believes each student should get hands-on experience in the fields they are considering joining before they commit to graduate school.

“I love to work with young people. They bring in a lot of energy,” Deshmukh said. “They apply for the program because they want to learn and they want to be involved. It is nice to know that you have contributed to bettering someone’s career.”

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