Tucson youth plunge into serious study of DNA at UA lab

July 22, 2009

By Flinn Foundation

Youths plunge into serious study of DNA at advanced UA laboratory

Longtime scientists showing the ropes to summer interns

By Cecilia Ragland Perry For the Arizona Daily Star Tucson, Arizona | Published: 07.07.2009

Kersten Linsangan and Patrick McCarty are working with DNA in a sophisticated lab at the University of Arizona, but they aren’t veteran scientists — they aren’t even in college yet. Linsangan and McCarty are among 21 Tucson-area high school students and recent graduates taking part in the Keep Engaging Youth in Science internship program, a partnership between the UA’s Bio5 Institute and the College of Pharmacy’s Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center. The students were selected from 58 applicants to gain hands-on experience alongside veteran scientists in more than 18 UA laboratories.

The program’s two sessions include a weeklong training institute, hands-on research, seminars and an $800 stipend. An eight-week session began May 26, and a six-week session began June 8; both end on July 17 with a session when students present their research to peers and the UA community. Although students don’t receive high school or college credit for the program, those involved say the experience is invaluable. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime; it’s an opportunity for high school students to see what it’s like to really be a scientist,” said Matt Kaplan, lab manager of the Human Origins Genotyping Laboratory, where McCarty is working.

Linsangan, who will be a senior at Sunnyside High School in the fall, is studying the role that environmental factors have on genetic disposition to diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. Linsangan, 17, is working in the Southwest Environmental Health Science Center, where she’s following in the footsteps of many high school students who have worked with Dr. Serrine Lau, director of the center. Lau feels that engaging high school students in science is critical to the future of medical research. “High school is where the pipeline begins,” Lau said.

That’s just what the Bio5 Institute and the science center had in mind when they crafted the program three years ago. Since then, the program has placed 55 Tucson high school students in various UA labs. “We’re working on getting many students involved in science and cultivating their enthusiasm about it at younger ages,” said Kevin Hall, Bio5’s director for research and training, and for career development.

Participants have conducted research in fields varying from genetics and pharmacology to biology. The goal is to provide outstanding students who are interested in science with the opportunity to experience hands-on scientific activities beyond the classroom. “Science isn’t just a grade anymore,” Linsangan said. “It’s fun.”

Linsangan, who also plays on her school volleyball and tennis teams, has loved science for as long as she can remember. McCarty, 18, first came to love science at the age of 6 after seeing the film “Jurassic Park.” McCarty, who graduated from Pueblo Magnet High School in May, is conducting DNA research in Kaplan’s lab, which provides DNA services to both the public and private sectors, including projects with National Geographic and Family Tree DNA.

McCarty also is conducting a student research project titled “America’s Next Top Taxonomist.” For that project, he generates DNA from an unknown sample of tissue and then places it in a genetic sequence database for identification. The program has given him a different perspective on science. “Here, it’s much more immersive and much more about the bigger picture,” he said.

The rigorous application process for the program requires that students have at least a 3.2 grade-point average, write an essay and do well in an interview. The most competitive students have strong science backgrounds that include biology and chemistry classes. The program has grown rapidly. Between word of mouth and program outreach, it has tripled in size, despite budget cuts. And due to funding that the program just received from the Arizona Department of Education, leaders hope to open the program to students across the state next year.

Program leaders feel that with success stories such as Linsangan’s and McCarty’s, the program is proving that it’s never too soon to open the door for young people to see the endless possibilities of their futures. “It’s amazing to have this opportunity to see the bigger picture,” McCarty said.

Cecilia Ragland Perry is a University of Arizona student who is apprenticing at the Star. Contact her at or at 573-4125.