Senator Barbara Mikulski and the Contagious “Learning Bug”

By Richard Folkers, Staff Writer; photos by Richard Frederickson, Staff Photographer
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Sen. Barbara Mikulski speaks to all NIH employees during her final visit to the NIH campus on April 11. She retires from the U.S. Senate at the end of 2016. Image from the NIH VideoCast.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski came to NIH on April 11 to say goodbye.

Following this fall’s election, the longest-serving woman in congressional history will relinquish her Maryland Senate seat, bringing to a close a 40-year national political career in which she staunchly supported NIH and biomedical research.

“NIH has been fortunate to have such a fierce champion on our side,” said Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., during a town hall meeting. “And NIH is a better place, I would say, for the fact that we’ve been challenged to work hard to live up to Sen. Mikulski’s standards—standards that reflect the stewardship role the country has entrusted to us.”

Mikulski was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1976; a decade later, she became one of just two female senators. She was re-elected four times, all by large margins. Mikulski has served on the Appropriations Committee, the panel that writes legislation to allocate federal funds to many government agencies, for her entire Senate tenure, and she was its chair from 2012 to 2014. In addition, Mikulski is the senior member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which has jurisdiction over NIH.

“My single goal was to let you be you,” Mikulski told the town hall, “so that you could come up with the cures and the breakthroughs, the new ideas, the new science that would help the American people and people all around the world.”

In her remarks, Mikulski also focused on education. If students want to pursue scientific careers and seek cures, it is imperative that the U.S. supports them, she said. And it is not just about graduate education and postdoctoral research: “We’ve got to look out for K through 12,” she said.

WHK SIP Echoes Mikulski’s Sentiments on Education

Not quite two weeks after the senator delivered those remarks, members of the NCI at Frederick community gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a program that echoes her words. Unique among NCI initiatives, the Werner H. Kirsten Student Intern Program (WHK SIP) immerses high school seniors in mentored biomedical research through hands-on laboratory training and internships that support science through information technology and health and science communication. WHK SIP interns, who have numbered well over 1,000 across the program’s history, come from the Frederick vicinity and work full-time over the summer, receiving a stipend for their efforts. During the school year, they continue to work for three hours each day in return for academic credit.

The anniversary symposium brought together current interns, mentors, and several WHK SIP veterans who are now studying and working in scientific fields. Sara Reynolds, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland who still works in an NIH lab, said that her internship in 2005 and 2006 unlocked skills and relationships that led to her current work in the field of virology. Reynolds said the “unique community” at NCI at Frederick taught her the value of hands-on experience, collaboration, working with experienced scientists, and engaging in the larger scientific community outside NCI laboratories.

Value was also on the mind of Theresa Alban, Ph.D., superintendent of Frederick County Public Schools, who said the WHK SIP is about driven students being pushed, learning to fail, learning to persevere, learning the value of asking questions, and finding a way to communicate science to the lay public.

Learning and the pursuit of new knowledge, symposium speakers emphasized repeatedly, are contagious.

Or, as Mikulski put it, “We need to make sure we are supporting education…so that our kids, if they get the bug, it’s the learning bug that they get.”

Mikulski’s full presentation can be viewed here.

Theresa Alban, Ph.D., superintendent of Frederick County Public Schools, explains the value of the Werner H. Kirsten Student Intern Program at NCI at Frederick.