By Isabel Pen
Scott Weaver, scientific director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch, stands in a teaching auditorium explaining about the chikungunya virus that has recently spread to Houston. His audience is not world-class scientists or news reporters. Eight extraordinary high school students comprise the group that eagerly absorbs Weaver’s every word.
Each summer, for more than 30 years, students selected for the UTMB High School Summer Research Program work in biomedical research labs on projects ranging from burn medications to vaccines for tropical diseases. Students also study medical ethics and participate in career seminars with scientists from across the university.
“Because the faculty here at UTMB understands it is their responsibility to grow the next generation of scientists, they go out of their way to make the effort and the allowances that let a teenager work in a lab,” says Kathy Tiernan, associate professor, director and one of the founders of the program.
This year Jennifer Aguilar, Josue Chirinos, Hannah Kelly, Kevin Le, Jesse Martinez, Ashok Sankaran, Darah Scruggs and Vivian Tat were the lucky high school students selected from more than 200 applicants. Their research ranged from diagnosing oral cancer with optical microscopy to investigating the role of a primary response gene in the prevention of Rickettsia.
Over the years, the program has attracted students from as far away as New York and Michigan. Most students, however, usually come from across the Greater Houston area.
Le, who attends Jersey Village High School in northwest Houston, moved to the island this summer to study in Weaver’s lab where scientists are working on a vaccine for chikungunya.
“Working in Dr. Weaver’s lab has shown me how to apply the skills I learned in AP chemistry to the field of microbiology,” says the rising senior. “The sense of community I feel within the lab tells me that this is definitely the kind of work I want to do in the future.”
This was the second year in the program for recent Clear Lake High School graduate Kelly, who studied the effect of enteric pathogens in the lab of Sara Dann, an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases.
“This program has shown me the importance of research in the world of medicine,” explains Kelly. “Without research, you don’t have anything to implement.”
Clifford W. Houston, one of the program’s founders, is associate vice president for Educational Outreach at UTMB, the office that oversees the research program. Houston said “the High School Summer Research Program is one of very few instances where students this young get hands-on experience in a real lab, something that can often be life-changing.”
The program has a track record of hosting students who end up at prestigious institutions such as Princeton and MIT.
Shelley Xie, one of Weaver’s former students, is a Stanford graduate who spoke at a TEDx conference in 2013. Dr. Richard King, a former UTMB high school summer research student, is now an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Utah after completing his residency at Harvard Medical School.
“The UTMB High School Summer Research Program was where I caught the ‘bug’ of wanting to discover and understand something that no one else in the world knew,” says Dr. Deepak Srivastava, director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. UTMB offered him his first opportunity to explore science in a laboratory setting. Afterwards, he was convinced that science was his destiny. “The experience was a rush and I was hooked.”