High School Scholars Experience the Joy of Scientific Inquiry

by Alison Krupnick

What would it be like to spend the summer immersed in “crispr” gene editing or comparing the heart signals of young versus aging mice? These are just some of the internship experiences our STEM-focused high school scholars had, thanks to an inaugural collaboration between Rainier Scholars and UW School of Medicine’s Departments of Biological Structure, Physiology and Biophysics, and Pharmacology.

Born from an initiative developed by UW School of Medicine professors Dr. Claudia Moreno and Dr. Fred Rieke, co-chairs of the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee for the Physiology and Biophysics Department, and Rainier Scholars Career Development team members Marilyn Lopez and Sara Jackson, the goal of this internship program was to demonstrate to diverse students that careers in science are achievable. “We are aware that there is a diversity problem in science,” says Dr. Moreno. “It’s up to us to do something about it.”

Lopez and Jackson gave a presentation about Rainier Scholars to interested research staff and the Dean of UW Medicine agreed to contribute towards funding the summer program.

The Value of Experiential Learning

The 11 high school scholars who participated in the program were housed in 11 different labs, where they each had an immersive experience. The choice to place them in dedicated labs, rather than floating, was deliberate, says Rieke. Each scholar was able to contribute to a specific research project over the course of the summer. “What makes us love science is the process of discovery,” says Moreno. “We wanted to make sure students got to experience that.”

University Prep rising senior Maylin Gasga wants to be a pediatric geneticist. After taking a high school genetics class and classes in bioethics and medical problem-solving, she decided she wanted hands-on lab experience. She spent her summer in the lab comparing human cochlear hair cells – which are sensitive to minute vibrations– to those of the zebrafish, which are surprisingly similar. This research will contribute to finding cures for hearing loss.

“There is no typical day,” says Maylin, who appreciates being able to connect what she’s learned in the classroom with real-world experience. She’s enjoyed the collaborative and informative nature of lab meetings and the support and autonomy she received from her mentor. How many 18-year-olds can say they’ve injected crispr into a zebrafish embryo? Maylin says the program provided “a safe environment to learn.”

“Actually doing science is different from the classroom experience,” says Rieke. He and Marilyn Lopez see the benefits of the confidence students develop from hands-on experience and how this can help them consider and feel prepared for their next steps.

As she embarks on her senior year of high school, Maylin plans to take advanced statistics, the second part of her medical problem-solving class and, possibly, social psychology. She’s preparing to apply to college, where she is considering majoring in pre-med, biology or nursing.

Like Maylin, Lakeside rising junior Gabby Serrano learned about the opportunity to work at one of UW’s Physiology and Biology labs through the Rainier Scholars High School Internship Program. “Rainier Scholars helped me find and apply for internships,” she says. “This is very helpful for those of us with no family connections or knowledge of how to apply for these opportunities.” 

Gabby spent her summer studying mice hearts in Dr. Moreno’s lab, looking at signals and evaluating ion channel openings and how they react to stimuli. She began each day using software to read and analyze single channel recordings. This data collection and analysis is an integral part of a research paper she’s collaborating on with the Moreno laboratory and she will be credited as a contributor when the paper is published.

The Importance of Intentional Placement

Once scholars were selected to participate in the program, Lopez, who manages Rainier Scholars’ high school internships, made the lab placements, based on interviews to assess each scholar’s areas of interest. Moreno and Rieke stressed how helpful this was.

“This was a mutually respectful collaboration,” says Jackson. The Rainier Scholars team used their understanding of each scholar and their learning goals to make successful placements. The UW researchers chose mentors and lab experiences that scholars would find rewarding. “We emphasized with each mentor that this would be a student-centered experience,” says Moreno. “We did not create this program to provide extra bodies to do grunt work. Science is about discovery and teamwork.”

Dr Moreno knows first-hand about the challenges faced by first-generation college students, people of color, and women in STEM. She made sure that scholars had the opportunity to discuss these barriers and to see role models who look like them and who could speak candidly about the pressures and power dynamics faced by underrepresented students and early career professionals.

She also wanted scholars to witness and experience the passion scientists feel for their work.

Template for a successful collaboration

The scholars shared their research at a closing symposium, which gave them the experience of public speaking and learning how to present scientific inquiry. “The symposium was a total success,” says Rieke. “We had great turnout from the UW community, and the students gave fantastic talks that showcased the depth of their research experiences.”

The architects of this program all agree that enabling each partner to play to their strengths is a template for what a successful internship program can be. They hope to find appropriate funding so the program can continue next summer and beyond. Thanks to the collaboration with UW Medicine, Rainer Scholars was able to significantly grow its high school internship program, says Jackson.

Maylin, the budding scientist, sees great value in her summer work experience. “I want people to understand how amazing it is to work with people who want to educate others.”

Marilyn Lopez firmly believes that providing real-world career exposure to scholars is crucial.

“What good is inner drive if you don’t have access to opportunity?”