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Helios Scholar at TGen Alumni Comes Full Circle

Author: Helios Education Foundation

August 15, 2018

The Helios Scholars at TGen program provides 45 undergraduate and graduate students, including some in medical school, a paid internship that aims to prepare the next generation of Arizona bioscience researchers and physicians. It just recently finished its 12th year. 

Since 2007, 464 students have participated in Helios Scholars at TGen. The program allows scholars to shadow TGen scientists who share research expertise and technical skills, bioethics, experimental design, and the translational process of quickly moving laboratory discoveries into new therapeutics to benefit patients with neurological disorders, infectious diseases and many types of cancer. 

The program also is designed to: increase access to academic experiences for underrepresented populations; demonstrate TGen’s and Helios’ leadership in innovative bioscience education; and enable graduates to become peer models who can inspire other students to achieve.

One past scholar, Heather Sonnemann, has made it full circle within TGen, coming back the summer of 2018 as a staff member. Sonneman returned as staff assistant for the inaugural TGen Bioscience Leadership Academy, a newly-launched two-week program specifically geared for high school students looking to elevate their understanding of bioscience and precision medicine.

In her role this summer, she helped manage day-to-day activities for this first class. “I didn’t realize what an impact a two-week program could have.” Sonnemann said. “When I was in high school, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for high school students in the biosciences so that is what really drew me to even want to work for the program.” 

As part of the Leadership Academy, students find not only challenging projects but often find comradery that extends beyond the summer. “They found their family, their little tribe, because they had found people just like them. They’ll still have that family 10 years from now,” says Sonnemann. She points out she still keeps in close contact with her Helios Scholar family. In fact, when she was at National Institutes of Health (NIH), eight Helios Scholar alumni also attended. 

Being part of the Helios Scholar alumni family has allowed Sonnemann to connect with others at scientific conferences, and she says now the Bioscience Leadership Academy alumni will have that same connection with their fellow alumni.

After applying to the program four times, Sonnemann was accepted to be a Helios Scholar at TGen in 2015, the summer leading up to her senior year at Arizona State University (ASU). Sonnemann graduated in 2016 with a bachelors in science in biological sciences with a concentration in genetics.  

The Helios Scholars at TGen program was not the only research fellowship she participated in while an undergraduate student. Sonnemann spent a summer in Boston at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard Summer Program, where she did research on how mutations can affect cancer’s survival rates. Immediately following her summer as a Helios Scholar, Sonnemann was accepted to the Ivy Neurological Sciences Internal Program at TGen during her senior year at ASU. 

For Sonneman, the most important part of the experience as a Helios Scholar at TGen was the autonomy she was given to learn on her own. “You had ownership on your own project, and they allowed you the ability to think critically. They would help guide you in the right direction, but at the same time you were the owner of the project, but you were able to think creatively and solve the problems on your own,” she said. 

Since graduating from ASU, Sonnemann has done post-baccalaureate research as a fellow at  the National Cancer Institute within the National Institutes of Health in Washington D.C. During her time at NIH, she worked on clinical trials, shadowed in clinics, and processed patient samples from clinical trials. This time solidified clinical research as her career goal and served as the impetus for the pursuit of a Ph.D.

This fall, she will begin her graduate coursework at MD Anderson's School of Health Professions at the University of Texas at Austin. Her concentration will be immunology. 

“I want to do cancer immunotherapy. If you study something like melanoma, which is more established, you can get a really great foundation and then go into another field, taking what knowledge you have from one cancer and go study another one and apply it (knowledge) that way,” says Sonnemann.  

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