Summer internship introduces Flinn Scholar to research world

August 25, 2010

By hammersmith

One of the important advantages that Arizona’s universities offer is the opportunity for students to conduct research as undergraduates–or even earlier. In the narrative below, Laura Moedano, a first-year Flinn Scholar from Yuma, describes her participation this summer in the University of Arizona’s KEYS Research Internships, a program she learned about while visiting UA in February as a finalist for the Flinn Scholarship.

The KEYS (Keep Engaging Youth in Science) program is one of several summer programs sited at universities and research institutions around the state that target young people interested in science, technology, education, and mathematics–the STEM fields. The KEYS  program is jointly overseen by the BIO5 Institute at UA and the university’s Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center.

Other summer STEM programs (see article links below) are offered by institutions that include Banner Sun Health Research Institute, the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, and the UA College of Medicine.

“Pipetting… Western-blots… Incubator… 96 well-plate… Principal Investigators…”

Looking forward to the week that lay before us, my 25 peers and I woke early and briskly walked from our dorm to the BIO5 building on the University of Arizona campus. The phrases above were sprinkled through the speeches we heard on the first morning of our summer internships. However, I had absolutely no idea what any of them meant.

In early February, after finding out my status as a Flinn Scholarship Finalist, I had gathered with my fellow Flinnlets in Slonaker House at UA, eagerly awaiting the two days we would spend on campus learning about the amazing opportunities available to us if we chose to attend UA for our undergraduate degrees.

Among many activities, I chose to participate in a tour of the BIO5 Institute, which is dedicated to cross-disciplinary research in agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, and science. The leader of the tour, Kevin Hall, mentioned the KEYS Research Internship and emphasized that this would be the first year that the program would allow state-wide applicants. (I’m from Yuma.)

The entire first week was characterized by mornings filled with lectures from prominent speakers and full afternoons in a lab practicing processes mentioned in the morning sessions. Each day proved longer than the one preceding it, but every concept taught was completely new, and I was grateful for what I had so quickly learned by the time I met my mentor Nicole Villeneuve and Principal Investigator Donna Zhang in the College of Pharmacy building.

Both of them were extremely welcoming. I was given a tour of Dr. Zhang’s lab area and introduced to the others who worked in her lab. They told me that the entire floor focused on studying the Nrf2 pathway, which gave me some sense of its overall importance and implications in cancer research. Nicole clearly explained and showed me each experiment I would be conducting, had me write the steps down, and then supervised as I performed each step myself.

While I was definitely nervous about making a mistake, requiring me to work on all of my own experiments helped me improve my methods and recognize the reasons I made errors, increased my confidence, and most importantly helped me fully understand the significance of each step in order to achieve the most reliable results.

Although the time spent in Dr. Zhang’s lab greatly affected how I approach and consider scientific research, the adventures I had outside of the workday proved just as informative. To an incoming freshman at UA, the campus at first appeared massive and confusing. However, by the end of the six weeks, not only had I understood the CatTran routes, which allowed me to ride the bus rather than walk in the wonderful mid-summer Arizona heat, but I also had been able to explore campus, tasted Chipotle and Frog N’ Firkin for the first time, and learned that I am horrible at budgeting money when on my own–a fact I’m glad I learned prior to starting college.

Overall, the summer spent as a KEYS intern surprised me in every aspect. Those 25 individuals I sat beside during the initial week are new friends I never would have had the opportunity to meet if it wasn’t for the program. And while I arrived on campus at the beginning of summer not understanding even basic concepts associated with scientific research, through the course of the program, not only did I comprehend all the terms that had confused me that first week, but I actually completed experiments and used materials that each of those terms signifies.

Perhaps most meaningful to me was how accessible science has now become. While I have always been intrigued by research, in the past I considered it to be a career field for others, but not for myself. Now I weigh it as a serious option for me and plan to continue to volunteer or work in a lab during my undergraduate years.

For more information:

TGen provides scientific springboard for Helios Scholars,” TGen news release, 07/30/2010

High Schoolers Question Medical Knowledge at Summer Institute,” UA news release, 07/28/2010

DV student spends summer in cancer research lab,” Ahwatukee Foothills News, 07/13/2010

KEYS program helps students explore science,” Arizona Daily Star, 07/11/2010

Summer assignment: high school interns explore new science,” ASU news release, 06/28/2010