When 17-year-old Caroline Lucarelli arrived in Auburn June 9, she had never been to Alabama or the deep South. But thanks to a Colorado-based, Smithsonian-affiliated organization, high school seniors such as Lucarelli have earned coveted research-intense internships that offer deep immersion in various fields of science being studied nationwide.
In Lucarelli’s case, the six-week internship, which ended July 19, centered around Dr. Reid Hanson’s research into the cartilage within various joints in horses. The Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine professor of equine surgery, Dr. Hanson, DVM, oversaw the trial, the third in this study, measuring the effects of force and friction on cartilage structure.
“Analyzing the various cartilage surfaces within each joint and between joints will lead to a better understanding of the mechanisms controlling the performance of healthy joints in horses and humans,” Dr. Hanson said. “This data can translate into the design of better human artificial joints.”
Lucarelli, who attends rural Telluride (Colo.) High School with about 70 senior classmates, has particular interest in the working of joints. In 2017, she injured her knee while snow skiing on a competition training run as part of the Telluride Ski and Snowboard Club’s Alpine team. She tore her ACL and MCL and partially tore her meniscus; rehabilitation has been intensive.
“Ever since that, I’ve been very interested in orthopedics—thinking about ways to improve knees,” Lucarelli said. “Even before the injury, I had tendonitis and my knees hurt. The technology for ACL repairs is great now, but it seems like knees are always a prominent issue for everyone. It’s been an interest for me to try to fix those things not only for me but for, I know, a lot of the population.”
Lucarelli’s time in Auburn did not revolve only around the current cartilage study. She also observed cases in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s equine clinics, following rotations with Dr. Hanson, along with CVM Associate Professor Dr. Fred Caldwell, DVM, Assistant Professor Dr. Lindsey Boone, DVM, and current veterinary students. One of Lucarelli’s favorite—although simpler—surgeries she observed, she said, was for a heel bulb laceration because it was “more traumatic and exciting and had to be quickly repaired.” Her favorite case was a horse which had colic surgery followed, unfortunately, by significant complications; Lucarelli called it her favorite because she observed how the team did everything to care for the horse.
“Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine has great people and a great program,” Lucarelli said. “Even though I was this little 17-year-old, all the students were so nice to me. The faculty didn’t mind me asking questions. There’s so much coming through, I wanted to spend as much time here as I could.”
Lucarelli’s days, more often than not, ran 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; but, on one occasion, she returned at 9 p.m. when she learned via student group chat that an emergency equine neurological case was coming in. “I felt like a real doctor because I got four hours of sleep that night,” she said.
From procedures including sinus surgery, cartilage repair, chemo and plasma injections, tooth extractions, joint inflammation surgery, tracheal mass removal, sarcoid treatment, arthroscopic joint surgery, to other orthopedic surgeries and more, Lucarelli’s equine clinics exposure was extensive—and appreciated. “I’ve observed many interesting cases that have come through the clinic,” she said. “It was very cool. I’ve learned so much.”
Lucarelli particularly enjoyed her time testing cartilage with third-year veterinary student and CVM Veterinary Summer Research Program scholar Hannah Himmelmann, who recently presented the summer test results to her veterinary colleagues at the College.
The data on articular cartilage samples was compiled with analyses run in the Multiscale Tribology Laboratory, a multidiscipline lab (located in Wilmore Laboratories on main campus) of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and the College of Veterinary Medicine. The collaborative research team included Dr. Hanson and Himmelmann and, from the College of Engineering (Department of Mechanical Engineering), Professor Rob Jackson and Assistant Professor Kyle Schulze, along with graduate student/research assistant Larkin Crilly.
“I think my favorite part of the internship,” Lucarelli said, “was the exposure to mechanical engineering. When there’s a crossover between the medical side and the engineering side, a lot of really amazing things can be done. As biologists, we think in the anatomical way and sometimes the engineering gets left to the side. But human bodies are just perfectly engineered structures. If you can truly understand the engineering of the body, I feel you can make better advances to fix it.”
The impressive high school senior (with a 3.8 GPA) also spent part of her Auburn time volunteering at Storybook Farms, a local nonprofit which provides riding therapy for children facing hardships and challenges. Lucarelli described her Storybook participation, saying, “I helped with field trips with kids and helped care for horses. It was a great philanthropic experience. It reminds you to give back. I saw what impact small things can have.”
Lucarelli has been riding horses since she was two and has competed with two of her family’s three horses. Her horse, Cash, and she qualified for American Quarter Horse competition last year. She travels throughout the West, going to 7-10 shows per year.
Thus, Lucarelli’s life events combined to make her internship match with the Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine a perfect one. “I knew Auburn was a huge veterinary school,” she said. “I looked at the equine research at Auburn and found Dr. Hanson’s research on cartilage. This equine internship combined all my worlds: surgery and cartilage and sports medicine.”
Lucarelli was one of 34 Colorado high school interns sponsored by the Smithsonian affiliate, called the Pinhead Institute after late-19th-century and early-20th-century Telluride entrepreneur L.L. Nunn’s habit of tracking his power plant workers with pins on a map. Nunn, who warmheartedly referred to his young workers as “pinheads,” developed a philanthropic relationship with Secretary of the Smithsonian Charles Walcott and, ultimately, entrusted most of his fortune to advancing education. The Pinhead Institute was formed in 2001 to provide rural youth with exposure to, according to the organization’s literature, “some of the greatest minds in the field of scientific study.”
Pinhead Institute Executive Director Sarah Holbrooke had matched two previous interns with Auburn CVM; each of those high schoolers studied bovine research. Pinhead interns come from rural Colorado and are selected based on grades, recommendations, involvement, STEM interest, and interviews.
Dr. Hanson said of his young intern, “She has been a joy to educate and broaden her eyes to this profession of clinical service, research and philanthropy.”
“My goals were to keep an open mind, have a good attitude and learn as much as possible,” Lucarelli said. She plans on studying medicine with at least a minor in engineering—but not at Auburn because she hopes to join a college ski team.
Mary Ellen Hendrix – College of Veterinary Medicine