Shining Stars

Students and Teachers as Research Scientists extends science education beyond the laboratory


For six weeks over the summer, a carefully selected group of scientifically gifted and motivated students ready for their junior or senior year of high school embark on the academic experience of a lifetime.

JAYA JACOB PEERS DOWN HER MICROSCOPE as she slices a tissue sample with the raw edge of a glass knife she made earlier that morning. But despite her impressive sea of slides, Jacob does not rank among the School of Medicine's graduate students or postdocs. In fact, the 17-year-old doesn't even have her high school diploma.

Jacob is one of 30 high school students participating in this year's Students and Teachers as Research Scientists (STARS) program in St. Louis, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Solutia Inc.

Evolved from the NSF Young Scholars program, STARS provides high school students and teachers with the opportunity to participate in scientific research at one of St. Louis' distinguished academic institutions—Washington University's Hilltop Campus, its School of Medicine, Saint Louis University's Frost Campus and School of Medicine, and the University of MissouriŠSt. Louis.

But this innovative program extends beyond the laboratory, as do the talents of its participants.

For six weeks over the summer, a carefully selected group of scientifically gifted and motivated students ready for their junior or senior year of high school embark on the academic experience of a lifetime. With help from their university mentor, each student completes a research project, and later submits it in written form and via oral presentation to the STARS organizers.

Lutheran North High School STARS participants, from left, Donivan Foster, biology teacher Michael Grupe, and Leah Livo.

If completing a research project from start to finish in only six weeks sounds daunting, imagine attending lectures and organized programs on top of your long laboratory hours. Add planned social activities to the calendar and you'll understand the exhaustingly fulfilling summer of a STARS participant.

Two half-days each week, students attend lectures about topics ranging from ethics of scientific interrogation to PowerPoint presentations.

Kenneth R. Mares, PhD, co-director of STARS, is particularly proud of the "career confab" series, which allows students to hear testimonials from professionals in careers that represent almost every possible application of science: from academia to computer science; from chemistry to mathematics; from forensic pathology to law enforcement. Seminars, which are offered in a wide range of fields, help students understand the integration between science and society and introduce them to the diverse tapestry of career opportunities available for bright, enthusiastic minds.

Two years ago, Mares and his co-director, Charles R. Granger, PhD, began recruiting high school teachers to participate alongside their students. Though some students enroll without a companion teacher, those who do take advantage of the team component are privy to additional benefits. "It gives them added support in the lab and somebody who is familiar to work with," says Tony Kardis, senior program adviser. This year, 18 teachers committed their summer vacation to undertake the STARS challenge.

Similar programs exist throughout the country, but the STARS organizers believe the St. Louis experience is special. With a lecture series, professional training seminars and top-notch research opportunities on six reputable campuses, STARS integrates a wider range of opportunities than any other program of its kind, says Kardis.

William A. Peck, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, supports the program and says it is the responsibility of the medical school to enhance science education.

"We are delighted to participate in the partnership of the STARS program," says Peck. "It is an ideal opportunity to further our commitment to research and help prepare the next generation of research scientists."

The Mentors

When Jo Holt, PhD, research assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, first decided to participate in the STARS program, she was somewhat hesitant. "I wasn't sure if I could explain my work to somebody in high school," she says. And the time commitment puts an additional strain on the typical university summer.

But three students later, Holt sings high praises for the program and its participants and is eager to enroll for another year. "You get a lot back from the program," she says. "Training students is a catalyst for creative thought—it takes you back to your roots, back to where you were when you got interested in this whole crazy business."

To ensure that her students leave Washington University satisfied with their first taste of academic research, Holt has developed a short program that allows each participant to try several stages of research and incorporates fallback positions in case the experiment goes awry—a common occurrence in laboratory research. She finds that this optimizes the restrictively short experience and enables each student to complete his own laboratory experiment.

J. Gail Neely, MD, professor of otolaryngology, accommodates the brevity of the program with a different tactic perfected during his six years of participation with STARS. "The key is to pick a project that's a spin-off, or a little piece, of your ongoing work that can be accomplished in a short period of time and let the student run with it," he says.

His theory must work—of Neely's five previous students, three have published their research and two are pending publication.

From his own experience, the success of the teens is not surprising. "These students are motivated. They're exciting to teach, and they perform independently and at a level that is astonishing. You have to actually concentrate on remembering that they're high school students," he says.

Both Neely and Holt agree that the one-on-one nature of this customized academic experience allows students an early glimpse into the world of research in science, an opportunity typically reserved for graduate-level training.

The Students

Ask high school senior Sheila Bijoor the infamous St. Louis question, "where do you go to school?" and you might be surprised by the answer. That's because the intrepid high school senior traveled more than 2,000 miles to participate in this year's St. Louis STARS program.

Raised in the scientifically active community of Fort Lauderdale FL, Bijoor was frustrated with the lack of opportunities in her new hometown of Seattle WA. She applied to several research programs around the country, ultimately choosing to spend her summer in St. Louis. "STARS provides me with the opportunity to work at Washington University School of Medicine, a nationally known institution for science research. Also, Dr. Mares is very dedicated to his students and has been a great help," she says.

Bijoor says she has not been disappointed, though she was intimidated initially by the state-of-the-art laboratory and her internationally renowned mentors, Jo Holt, PhD, and Gary K. Ackers, PhD, professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics. But she quickly realized that, "they're just really nice people, always sharing their knowledge and advice. It's their passion and enthusiasm for their subjects that have made them so successful."

For Bijoor, STARS has solidified her interest in biomedical engineering and opened her eyes to the world of academia. "I've really learned what it is to be a researcher. There's much more to it than experimentation."

But not all of this year's STARS students flew across the country for the summer. In fact, of the 30 students participating during summer 2000, Bijoor is the only one from out of state.

Her local colleagues have had similarly positive experiences. Jaya Jacob of Parkway South High School says, "I now understand more about the research field and how much hard work it is. I never realized there's so much more to it than research."

The Teachers

In the past 14 years, Lutheran North High School biology teacher Michael Grupe has had only three summers off. His commitment to teaching and his scientific curiosity have drawn him to programs like STARS. And now he's hooked.

"It's important to keep teachers up-to-date, to keep us motivated, to give us new directions. We get stagnant if we sit around," he says.

Science teachers rarely receive laboratory experience as part of their training. According to Grupe, the subsequent cost is significant. "If we're teaching science, then we need to have an idea of what science is and how it's done. When you've experienced it, then you can communicate that to your students."

And that is what Grupe has done. One of his students this summer, Donivan Foster, learned a lot about himself and about his interests in science and academia through the STARS program, thanks in large part to Grupe's presence in the lab. "We were all able to come together with ideas," he says, "which was nice, because it's easier to ask him questions."

Leah Livo, Grupe's second student co-participant this year, has enjoyed her experience so much that she is now interested in attending Washington University as an undergraduate next year. Previously dubious about choosing a college in her hometown, the STARS experience has made her feel more comfortable in these surroundings. "It has made my goal of becoming a doctor seem possible," she explains.

The Alumni

The summer research program in St. Louis has evolved drastically from its modest beginnings at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 1988, now incorporating students and teachers, research and seminars, and social and academic adventures.

Of course, Mares admits there is a hidden agenda. "If this area is going to be economically viable, we'd better turn out molecular biologists, computer scientists and information technologists," he says. He and his colleagues hope the program will inspire the bright, gifted young leaders in the local community to stay in or return to Missouri.

So far, the plan has worked. Of the 400 participants in the past 11 years, roughly 50 percent have attended universities in Missouri, with approximately 20 percent staying in St. Louis. The majority, Mares says, attend Washington University.

In fact, some STARS participants, such as Nilofer Umar, return to the university even before they graduate from high school. Umar worked as a research assistant in Neely's laboratory for the summer.

Other alumni have attended prestigious universities, such as Stanford, Harvard, Duke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some go on to medical school, some become teachers, some follow an entirely different path, with the memory of their summer experience tucked confidently by their side.

But regardless of their ultimate direction, these young hopefuls have been given an interactive glimpse into the opportunities that await. "These are the kids who are going to go out and become leaders," says Neely. Particularly in this age, when technology overrides personal communication and time is hard to come by, "we need to invest in our future with the highest commodity we have—ourselves."