The U.S. Army Medical Research Directorate-Georgia, an oversees laboratory of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research located in the Republic of Georgia, Tbilisi State University and San Diego State University are collaborating to give rising undergraduate seniors firsthand experience in the science field.
USAMRD-G was established in 2014 to track military-relevant infectious disease and provide laboratory support to U.S. European Command. Part of that mission includes extensive engagement with the Georgian military and civil society, including opening its doors to young people in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). During the three week summer program, students participated in USAMRD-G projects like infectious disease surveillance and research and development studies, learning skills like principles of biosafety and the identification of antimicrobial susceptibility profiles of bacteria isolates recovered from patients presenting with infections in Georgian clinics.
“We want to offer an opportunity for students to see state-of-art technologies used in clinical diagnostic and research laboratories to identify and characterize pathogens responsible for infectious diseases in humans that students would not have an opportunity to encounter in undergraduate laboratories,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Scherer and Maj. Kelly Hourihan, USAMRD-G’s director and senior scientist, respectively.
The current agreement allows for rising seniors to partake in a three week crash course that gets them ready for the field or graduate school. At the end of their experience, the interns were joined by the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan, for a graduation ceremony and capstone exercise. For Maj. Shannon Walls, USAMRD-G science director, the experience has been a test in readiness.
“Interacting with [young people in STEM], they ask questions…that never even occur to me,” says Walls. “It’s like ‘wow, I didn’t even think of it that way, I have to go research and I have to look into that.’ It’s their lines of questioning and their different methods of learning and understanding, it helps me and keeps me engaged.”
USAMRD-G’s scientists are aware they are guests in Georgia. Co-located with the Georgian National Centers for Disease and Prevention, USAMRD-G scientists have also supported the country’s response to COVID-19, joint U.S.-Georgian military exercises and other Georgian biomedical research projects. “There’s a lot of misinformation, at least the first two years I was here, particularly about NCDC,” said Walls, “I thought that if we could get the high-schoolers in for themselves…then they’ll end up going back to their parents, saying ‘this what they actually do.’”
Part of WRAIR and USAMRD-G’s mission to build partner capacity and interoperability as well as directly support the fighting force, Scherer, Walls and Hourihan all hope to expand the program to include more interns for a longer period of time, perhaps a semester’s worth of service.