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High School Students Explore Possibilities of Scientific Research
August 30, 1999

ast Hartford High School sophomore Nalaniz Peña gently places the tip of the micro-pipette she is holding into a small glass flask and squeezes slowly. As she watches intently the liquid reaction now underway, Peña softly whispers: "I had no idea what I was getting into."

"I really thought I'd be washing glassware," says Peña, one of nine economically disadvantaged Connecticut high school students selected to participate in UConn's Student Research Apprentice Program this summer. "In this experiment I'm working with DNA. They don't even let seniors do this at my high school."

"In my AP bio class we did experiments and wrote reports," chimes in Pamela Shimono, a junior advanced placement biology student at Amity Regional High School in Orange, helping Peña with her experiment. "Here we're mixing chemicals, getting to make our own solutions. I'm learning so much I'm going to be able to teach my teacher next year."

The enthusiasm voiced by Peña and Shimono trigger a smile from Maronda Brown, a Ph.D. student in molecular and cell biology, who welcomed the two students into her laboratory for their stay at UConn.

"Part of what I try to tell them is, 'you can do this,'" says Brown, whose research involves identifying DNA fingerprints in scallops that will help the scallop industry identify different stocks. "When I was growing up, I didn't know you could do this kind of research for a living," she says.

The high school research apprenticeship is an outreach program offered by the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. It is intended to pique students' interest in biomedical research and, by giving them a chance to interact with scientists conducting current research, let them see that biology is a field with many fascinating jobs, that's constantly expanding as researchers make new discoveries.

"It's very difficult to convey the complexity and excitement of careers in science," says Judith Kelly, professor of molecular and cell biology, who oversees the program. "Here's a case where UConn faculty volunteer their time and devote their resources to give these students hands-on lab training that may keep the doors open to a scientific career they don't even know exists."

The program runs for six weeks during the summer, with the students in residence on campus during the week and visiting home on weekends. Applications are solicited from all Connecticut high schools during the spring and the participants are selected by a committee in molecular and cell biology.

Since its inception in 1979, the program has been funded through a grant from the National Institutes of Health that provides each high school student with a small stipend and a modest laboratory supply budget. Each student is assigned to a faculty mentor and completes a research project of their own.

In addition to their research, the participants are trained in lab safety, the use of research libraries, and research ethics, and are taken on field trips to show them alternatives to the academic research environment.

This summer included visits to the Connecticut State Police Forensic Laboratory in Meriden, the National Marine Fisheries Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., and the robotics, computer imaging and pharmaceutical laboratories at Pfizer Central Research in New London.

"The field trips have definitely given me exposure to very different kinds of job environments," says Derek Haspeslagh, a graduating Windsor High School senior who intends to

enroll in UConn as a freshman this fall. "It helped bring my future a little closer, to see different job possibilities."

On the basis of Haspeslagh's performance this summer, Charles Giardina, an assistant professor who hosted Haspeslagh in his lab, decided to offer him a job in the fall under a federal work study program.

"This program gave us time to work with Derek and start to train him as a lab assistant," Giardina says. "It's a ideal way to help someone get started in research science."

Developing careers in science - especially attracting historically under-represented students to careers in the biological sciences - is the long-term goal of the program, says Kelly.

And a recent survey of the research apprentices who participated in the program from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s, found that nearly two-thirds of the students contacted had pursued studies in science, engineering or medicine.

David Bauman