ASU research internship gives students a chance to help discover solutions

July 23, 2009

By Flinn Foundation

Putting their brains to the test, more than 20 high school students worked alongside Biodesign Institute scientists as part of a summer high school internship at Arizona State University.

Students from 13 Phoenix-area high schools worked on research projects that address pressing societal problems, ranging from decontamination of groundwater to building nanostructures for diagnostics and working on cures for infectious diseases and cancer. The daily exposure to the large research teams and world-class facilities of the institute gave the students an in-depth introduction to the career of a research scientist.

For Phoenix Union Bioscience High School senior Tesla Therrien, scooping up enzymes and proteins was a lot different from her first job experience scooping ice cream. “I thought working in a lab would be scary, but the scientists helped me understand everything. And when we had setbacks in our project, it just got me more into what I was doing.”

“Science is like solving a really hard mystery. Sometimes you get stuck on the first few steps of the experiment,” agreed Benjamin Hill of Chandler Preparatory Academy, who is considering attending ASU. “My mentor made sure I got to do everything and even rescheduled a lab meeting so that I could attend.”

Biodesign Institute Executive Director Alan Nelson, PhD, stressed the important role of such hands-on educational opportunities. “Future breakthroughs in medicine and protecting our environment will depend on preparing these students to succeed. Challenging laboratory experiences let them see that they can have an impact, and this makes all their hard work worthwhile,” he said. 

“Now that I’ve been in a real working lab, biology class definitely will click more for me,” said Desert Vista High School senior Jared Naimark. “The projects are so amazingly cutting-edge; work done here really is the future.”

Each student is mentored by a researcher within the Institute, and mentors say the experience is as rewarding to them as to the students. “Having interns in the lab makes a big difference in their lives and on mine,” said Biodesign researcher Jeffrey LaBelle, PhD.

A key goal of the program is to give students a taste of what it would be like should they pursue a career in research.  “Hands-on experience is not obtained easily, so it is valuable,” said mentor and researcher Weimin Gao, PhD.  “My intern and I treated each other like scientific colleagues by exchanging ideas about the background of our project, its potential significance, and future articles to read.”

The internship program, now in its fourth year, supports a Valleywide initiative to strengthen the area’s bioscience/biotechnology industry. Interns had to opportunity to complete their summer work experience by presenting their research in front of their colleagues, mentors and parents.

About the Biodesign Institute at ASU
The Biodesign Institute at ASU is focused on innovations that improve health care; provide renewable sources of energy and clean the environment; outpace the global threat of infectious disease; and enhance national security. Using a team approach that converges the biosciences with nanoscale engineering and advanced computing, the goal is to find solutions to complex global challenges and accelerate these discoveries to market. In addition to its high school outreach, the institute also educates future scientists by providing hands-on laboratory research for more than 250 ASU undergraduate and graduate students per semester.