By Vanessa Vieites
High school students-turned-junior scientists took over FIU labs this summer. Their hard work as research assistants culminated in a ceremony last Friday where their contributions were judged and celebrated.
The event concluded the Summer Research Internship (SRI) Program, which gave 31 rising juniors and seniors an opportunity to present the work they conducted over the past eight weeks in biology, chemistry, psychology and biomedical engineering labs. First, second, and third place winners were recognized, each receiving an award certificate and Amazon gift card sponsored by the American Heart Association.
The program offers academically advanced high school students the chance to dabble in research before entering college, automatically giving them a competitive edge over other college applicants. At this year’s symposium, students presented research on topics such as heart health in animal subjects, coral bleaching caused by rising water temperatures, robotic arms designed to help amputees and executive functioning activity in the brains of young children.
“[SRI] was a great experience,” said Kelsea Scott, a rising senior at Medical Academy for Science and Technology (MAST) at Homestead. “I appreciate it because I know that going into the research field and going into a university’s lab, they expect you to have some kind of experience on your resume, and this [program] gave me the opportunity to do that.” Scott spent the summer studying heart disease in professor Joshua Hutcheson’s Cardiovascular Matrix Remodeling Laboratory.
Less than a decade after its inception, the program has become a pipeline for students interested in careers in science and medicine. Their goals range from conducting basic research with long-term public health implications to being doctors and surgeons who directly impact said health.
“We have [previous] students who are now in medical school, who [work] in industry, who are in Ph.D. programs. We have seen that pipeline of [high school] students who come to FIU and apply for NIH fellowships and Ph.D. programs around the country,” said SRI program coordinator Amy Reid.
Shreyanshu Ray, a rising junior at MAST at Homestead, who worked in Professor Hutcheson’s cardiovascular processes lab along with Scott said, “SRI really helped me cultivate my interest and helped me see where I want to pursue a career in the future. It really helped me see where I can succeed in my academic field, what skills and talents I have, and how I can reach my dreams of becoming a biomedical major and possibly a surgeon in the future.”
Students accepted into the program work 20 hours a week in a designated lab. In addition, they attend weekly professional and academic development workshops to learn about writing research abstracts, accessing the FIU library databases, giving an effective oral presentation on their research and more. Having been exposed to so many of FIU’s academic and professional resources, many of these students end up choosing to attend FIU, immediately volunteering in research labs.
As undergraduate students, many of those who participated in the high school program go on to publish their research in academic journals even before earning their bachelor’s degree—a rare feat—because they have been working on projects in labs for several years, according to Reid.
“I’m definitely considering [applying to] FIU. I plan to major in biological sciences, and hopefully, I can continue to do [the research] I started here,” said James Cannon, a rising senior at TERRA Environmental Research Institute, who studied the genes responsible for blue pigmentation in coral reef in professor Mathew DeGennaro’s lab.
Professor DeEtta Mills, who directs the program, has had summer research interns volunteer in her forensic biology lab for the past seven years. Mills said, proudly, “They are extremely driven and very bright. To give up their summers is not something you find in your average student. They’ll all go on to do great things. SRI is a stepping-stone for them.”
High schooler Rolando Casas of TERRA Environmental Research Institute, seen with professor DeEtta Mills (left) and program organizer Amy Reid, earned first place.
Summer research interns represented rising juniors and seniors from Medical Academy for Science and Technology at Homestead, TERRA Environmental Research Institute, Maritime & Science Technology Academy, School for Advanced Studies, Mater Academy Lakes High School, John A. Ferguson Senior High School and Coral Reef High School