STARS program inspires passion for scientific research, learning

Dr. Raksha Jain caught the attention of STARS students in her lecture when she discussed how her interest in biology over engineering in college led to a career in science.

The STARS program, Science Teacher Access to Resources at Southwestern, celebrated its 26th year by bringing 52 Dallas-area high school students and four teachers to the UT Southwestern campus for a summer of learning to increase science knowledge, awareness, and appreciation.

STARS, including its summer research programs, has served more than 50,000 students and 10,000 teachers since its inception in 1991. It has become the go-to venue for science teacher educational resources as well as for high school students considering careers in health care or research.

Wesley McDonald, a senior at the Harmony School of Nature & Athletics in Dallas and a veteran of UT Southwestern’s biology, chemistry, and physics camps for high school students, described his STARS summer as a success.

“The camps were amazing, so I expected the STARS summer research program would be the same. I wasn’t disappointed,” said Mr. McDonald, who is considering a career in biomedical engineering. He spent his summer in the lab of Dr. Esra Akbay, Assistant Professor of Pathology.

“I knew I had a passion for research, and this confirmed it for me,” Ritu Trivedi, a Plano West High School senior, said of her STARS experience working in the lab of Dr. Nancy Monson, Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and Immunology.

Part of the STARS program involved weekly lectures by researchers, including Dr. Raksha Jain, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, and Molecular Microbiology, who encouraged the students to seek to out as many mentors as possible and to find their way to the right career.

Dr. Jain grew up in Richardson, and thought as she grew up that she would like a career as an engineer. But she chose biology over engineering and is now a specialist in the treatment of cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disorder that causes the production of abnormally thick mucus, leading to the blockage of the pancreatic ducts, intestines, and bronchi and often results in respiratory infection.

Trained as a pulmonologist, she joined the faculty in 2010 and is Director of the Medical Center’s Adult Cystic Fibrosis Program.

Especially interested in Dr. Jain’s presentation was Randy Nguyen, a senior at Poteet High School in Mesquite, who worked in her lab all summer.

“The most important thing I got from STARS was an exposure to the critical thinking required in research,” he said. “The people in Dr. Jain’s lab were extremely supportive, and they encouraged me to think with them on the next steps we need to take to learn more about cystic fibrosis.”

Mr. Nguyen, who hopes for a career as a plastic surgeon, said the lab exposure showed him possibilities for a career that he hadn’t previously considered.

“It is always thrilling and inspiring for me to observe students and teachers who are so highly motivated and focused to accomplish something significant in UTSW laboratories,” said Dr. Joel Goodman, Professor of Pharmacology and STARS Director. “This is a huge undertaking for the STARS staff – from the receipt of several hundred applications in the winter to the final celebratory poster session in late July.” 

Dr. Goodman lauded the STARS staff for its work with the program participants.

“Without the dedication of STARS Assistant Director Lynn Tam, Senior Education Coordinator Kristie Conner, Education Coordinator Pearlie Crawford, and Education Assistant Maria Sandlin to help me run this program, STARS just wouldn’t happen,” he said. “We are all looking forward to catching our breath and getting ready for the start of this year’s activities.”

Dr. Goodman holds the Jane and Bob Bullock Distinguished Chair for Science Education.

Dr. Jain is a Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care.