STARS program brings young students, experienced mentors together

By Lin Lofley

Before they were ever scientists, most researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center knew without reservation that they wanted to pursue biomedical investigations.

The students who took part in the 2013 Science Teacher Access to Resources at Southwestern (STARS) program are near the point of knowing, and a summer on campus working in the laboratories appears to have moved some closer to confirmation.

Stuart Ravnk, Ph.D. and students
Dr. Stuart Ravnik shares a moment of discovery with STARS students who were taking part in a hands-on demonstration at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

The 38 STARS students – joined by five high school teachers – completed their summer assignments recently with a poster session on the South Campus that drew investigators, parents, siblings, and UT Southwestern leaders.

“I learned this summer you can do research, even without the background,” said Susy Briones, of Uplift Williams Preparatory, who impressed researchers in the lab of Dr. Ivan D’Orso, Assistant Professor of Microbiology. “I wasn’t experienced when I arrived, but they gave me so much trust and responsibility that I understood immediately how important this was.”

Ms. Briones, who hopes to attend either Northwestern University or the University of Chicago, plans to major in biology, a decision that was clarified by her experiences in the lab. “I got to work hands-on in the lab, and after this summer I’m certain that biology is what I want to study.”

“She was superb,” Dr. D’Orso said. “She has a really great talent for research, and she’s a very hard worker. She brought a lot to us this summer.”

Daniel Podolasky, M.D, and Rachana Vemireddy
Plano East student Rachana Vemireddy, who was mentored this past summer by Dr. David Boothman, explained her STARS poster project to an interested viewer, UT Southwestern President Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky.

The STARS theme is learning by doing, and most of the students reported that they had learned a lot.

“I got some of my misconceptions about research out of the way,” said Samya Isa, of Plano East High School, winner of the 2013 Kathryn and Ashley H. Priddy Award. She plans to study biology in college.

“I was uncomfortable at the beginning, because there was so much that I didn’t know,” said Ms. Isa, who worked in the lab of Dr. Linda Baker, Professor of Urology in the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development and Director of the Sarah M. and Charles E. Seay Center for Pediatric Urology. “But by the end I felt much more knowledgeable, and I loved finally having the opportunity to work in a lab.”

Rachana Vemireddy, also of Plano East, said the variety of investigational approaches surprised her. “I learned how much uncertainty there is in science,” said Ms. Vemireddy, who plans to study neuroscience or psychology and is leaning toward Brown University or Rice University.

“All I’ve done before this summer was science fairs, and you can pretty well predict how your project is going to turn out,” said Ms. Vemireddy, who spent the summer in the lab of Dr. David Boothman, Professor of Radiation Oncology and Pharmacology in the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center. “But in research there are a lot of things you don’t know. In fact, you’re never really done.”

Sofia Joison, of J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, shared news about her research with her sister, Nicole, herself a STARS participant in 2012 who is now studying biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

“I learned to be patient,” said Ms. Joison, who is considering a long list of schools and a number of possible majors. “You have to constantly modify your research because sometimes things don’t work. At first, when things didn’t work, I was traumatized.”

She spent the summer in the lab of Dr. Ian Corbin, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine in the Advanced Imaging Research Center.

Dr. Stuart Ravnik, Associate Director of the STARS program and Assistant Dean of the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, said the 2013 STARS participants set a high standard for next year’s group.

“We interviewed approximately 60 students from nearly 800 applications to reach our final number of 38,” he said. “The majority of these students have never been in an interview situation. No matter their background, their school, or their personal situation, we show these students from all over the Metroplex the excitement and joy of discovery that takes place in scientific research. We expect a great deal of them, and it is so gratifying to see them always exceed those expectations.”

Since its inception in 1991, STARS has grown to serve more than 5,000 teachers and 30,000 students in 2,000 schools in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

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Dr. Boothman holds the Robert B. and Virginia Payne Professorship in Oncology.

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