Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
UA Prepares High School Students for Research
The KEYS program involves high school students in original and ongoing research at the UA.
When involving students in research, helping them move beyond simple tasks such as weighing components, measuring liquids, and cleaning and sterilizing equipment to actively contributing to scientific knowledge is a crucial step.
This is the motive behind Keep Engaging Youth in Science, or KEYS, a University of Arizona internship program engaging high school students in ongoing biomedical research in University laboratories.
"Students might be replicating a graduate student's research or identifying results that they can pursue, but here we have people who are training them to look into issues and theorize about what is happening," said Heather C. Ingram, who co-directs KEYS.
Current KEYS students and alumni will present their research during the Winter Student Research Showcase on Nov. 6 from 4-6:30 p.m. in the Thomas W. Keating Bioresearch Building, 1657 E. Helen St.
Offered through a partnership between the BIO5 Institute and the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center, or SWEHSC, at the UA College of Pharmacy, the program involves students in research related to genetic diversity, robotics, diabetes, cancer detection and regulation, drug delivery in the blood stream, the characteristics of asthma and a range of environmental issues, among other topics.
Also, private donors and about 60 faculty members from across campus support and participate in the program, involving students in ongoing bioscience, bioengineering and environmental health science research on campus. Serrine S. Lau, the SWEHSC director, is prinicipal investigator on the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant funding the program.
Now in its seventh year, the KEYS program's seven-week summer internship has served 140 high school students from across Arizona. Each year, students are matched with UA researchers, work with graduate students and also learn laboratory techniques and how to read research papers. About half of those students have gone on to study at the UA, said Marti Lindsey, who co-directs KEYS.
During the program, students with need receive housing support and funding for food and transportation in addition to three hours of University credit from the molecular and cellular biology department at the College of Science.
"Their first experience is really like a job where they are working 40 hours each week. But KEYS is more than the summer program," said Ingram, also senior program coordinator of BIO5's education, outreach and teaching department.
"KEYS is all about connections – connecting the students with other students, with faculty and donors," she added. "It's about the students taking this experience and doing something valuable in their lives."
Through their involvement, students also produce a research poster and earn three UA units. Each year, a number of KEYS students opt to pursue studies at the UA and continue their involvement with the program.
One of them is Kevin Ehrichs.
While in high school, Ehrichs was curious about a career in scientific research, but it was only after being diagnosed with celiac disease – a condition that causes negative reactions upon eating gluten – did he become deeply invested.
One of his high school teachers informed him about KEYS and, after being accepted, Ehrichs was placed in a laboratory that studies inflammation in the digestive tract.
"Without KEYS, I wouldn't be where I am today. It's a wonderful program that helps you realize the different kinds of research and that there is so much more to learn," said Ehrichs, a molecular and cellular biology freshman.
"As a freshman, I was able to get my foot in the door in a paying lab where most people don't even get the job until their junior or senior year," Ehrichs said, adding that he one day plans to head his own laboratory. "KEYS has definitely been very helpful for that."
Lindsey said it is an invaluable experience for future researchers to have practical, applied experience so young in their development.
"This is a pivotal stepping stone for these students," said Lindsey, also community outreach director for the UA College of Pharmacy.
Also, being able not only to engage in research, but also to communicate their work to a range of audiences, is increasingly important for the scientists of tomorrow, Lindsey said.
"The real life of a scientist intersects in KEYS," she said. "It gives them poise and confidence and often changes the trajectory of what they will do in life."
Shiana Ferng, whose brother and sister are UA students, has long aspired to pursue research. But, in high school, she found that few opportunities existed. Ferng learned about KEYS from an email blast while in high school and, at the time, was taking a biotechnology class at Pima Community College.
"I had not considered having a career in research until KEYS. The more I thought about it and being able to connect to big world questions, I became fixated," said Ferng, a UA Honors College senior studying biochemistry. Ultimately, Ferng said she would like to pursue a joint doctoral and public health degree and contribute to improved drug development.
In her work, Ferng is studying how neurotoxins affect the nervous system and also is trying to develop a improved Parkinson's disease model that would help to better understand different developmental stages of the disease. "It's very promising, but we are still trying to nail down the statistical numbers."
While she is enjoying her work with the medaka fish, she eventually wants to work more directly with patients. She has made that connection through her work with Sherman, an associate professor of neurology.
"At the clinic, the patients would ask about new research developments and wanted to know how they could get involved," Ferng said, adding that such observations and conversations have improved her understanding of drug development and clinical trials. "I saw that they had a strong relationships with Dr. Sherman, and it helped me to realize there is so much more that can be done in terms of interacting with patients so that they are most supported."
It is awareness that may have been delayed had she not been given a chance, Ferng said.
"Certain research groups and individuals may not have faith in youth doing research because they might not think they are capable. So, as a high school student, I think it was even more important for me that I was able to get that experience," said Ferng, also a UA Undergraduate Biology Research Program student. "I learned early on that I can do it, and it has made a big difference in my life."
In particular, Ferng has wanted and continues to develop a deeper and more nuanced perspective about scientific processes, finding that such teachings also inform her life. She has gone on to mentor other UA and high school students, encouraging them to become involved in research early and, among younger populations, to strengthen their college-going beliefs.
"We're always told what the big picture is. But the steps along the way aren't always clear. But that's not just in research. That's across life," Ferng said.
"What I've brought away from my experience is the ability to explain complex research and to also break it down and live it," she added. "It's helped me in how I approach life, and what's really important is the whole aspect of gaining self confidents and skills through research."