Priddy Scholars put scientific aspirations to work in research labs through summer STARS Program

Kathryn and Ashley H. Priddy Scholarship winners Rachel Hodge (left) and Lisa Michaels took part in the STARS Program featuring a speech by Nobel Laureate Dr. Bruce Beutler.

By Lin Lofley

Over the years, students and teachers in the Science Teacher Access to Resources at Southwestern (STARS) program have listened to speeches from important and oft-cited researchers.

But it isn’t often that STARS program participants hear from a newly minted Nobel Prize winner, as occurred recently when Dr. Bruce Beutler, Director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense, spoke on “Planned Discoveries: The Forward Genetic Approach.”

Dr. Beutler, Professor of Immunology, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In July he told the gathering of area teachers and high school students in STARS that scientific discovery is often a matter of serendipity. He explained where the word comes from – it was coined by Horace Walpole, English politician and author – and offered examples of scientific discoveries that were made by researchers who were looking for something else entirely.

“That was fantastic,” said Lisa Michaels, 16, of Plano West High School. “In his discussion on forward genetics, he touched on exactly what I’ve been working on in the lab of Dr. (Joseph) Takahashi (Chairman of Neuroscience). It was inspiring to see Dr. Beutler in person.”

Lisa was an eighth-grader when she won the Kathryn and Ashley H. Priddy Scholarship, but had to wait until this summer to participate since students must be at least 16 years old to work in a UT Southwestern lab. Priddy Scholars are invited to take part in the STARS summer program.

“I am honored to win the Priddy Scholarship,” said the two-time International Science Fair Winner. “It gave me the opportunity to spend a summer in the Neuroscience lab using mouse models to study circadian rhythms and cocaine sensitivity.” Her previous research was based on transgenic fruit flies, with limited access to labs.

Rachel Hodge, a fellow 2012 Priddy Scholar and Grand Prize Winner just like Lisa, talked about the long road she’s traveled since her first science fair project in third grade: “It was a toy car on a ramp. We investigated weight distribution and angle with regard to acceleration,” said Rachel, 17, a senior at Plano Senior High School.

“Science fairs gave me the opportunity to go to competitions in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, College Station, and San Antonio,” she added. Rachel, who hopes to attend Rice University, said she honed her interests in genetics and microbiology working this summer in the lab of Andrew Pieper, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Biochemistry.

Rachel said she didn’t know that the STARS program existed until she received an invitation in person from Dr. Stuart Ravnik, Assistant Dean of the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Associate Director of the Program.

 “There is this mix of excitement, anxiety, and awe that they are here to actually participate in real research,” Dr. Ravnik said of the STARS Program. “Some of these students will maintain their enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge in science and medicine, and they might someday be back on our campus as grad students, medical students, physician assistant students, technicians, etc.

“Knowing that I had a small role in that, well it keeps me coming back for more and putting more energy into this program and these kids. These are the future of science and medicine, they are precious, and we need to encourage and nurture their passion.”

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Dr. Beutler holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research in Honor of Laverne and Raymond Willie Sr., and is a Regental Professor.

Dr. Takahashi holds the Loyd B. Sands Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience.

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