High school students have been involved this summer in intense laboratory and science literacy training under the tutelage of University of Arizona researchers through the

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Keep Engaging Youth in Science internship program.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the seven-week program — called KEYS for short — that is recognized as one of the state's premier pathways for developing science interests and skills in pre-college students.

This summer, KEYS students were able to work on a variety of research projects related to plant science, biomedical engineering and other disciplines. KEYS will host a research showcase and closing ceremony on Friday, marking the culmination of the high school students' hands-on experience with UA research.

Marti Lindsey has been at the heart of the program since the beginning and has influenced the development of KEYS and the students participating in it.

"Students can do so much with their lives if they get passionate about science," said Lindsey, director of the community outreach and education program for the UA College of Pharmacy's Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center. "Once you get into the lab and you understand that science is actually very dynamic and about discovering the unknown rather than the known, the thought of the idea that 'I might want to be a scientist' takes hold."

Since its origins, the program has flourished under the co-direction of the College of Pharmacy and the BIO5 Institute, assisted by dedicated staff and supporters who help fund the program so that qualified students won't see the program's cost as a barrier.

Students from across Arizona are recruited for KEYS. Each is placed as an intern in the lab of a faculty mentor and trained to contribute to research being conducted in the lab. The program has grown from nine students in 2007 to 48 interns annually in the last several years.

Life-Changing Experience

"KEYS was the best time of my life, and I feel it has assured me that I am on the right track as far as college and career goes," said Khalid Ahmad, a 2015 intern. "KEYS has honestly changed my life so much, and I intend on making sure that every person who can make an effort to be a part of KEYS does so."

With the addition of the 2016 cohort, 330 interns will count themselves as KEYS alumni.

Lisa Romero, senior director of public affairs and communications for the BIO5 Institute, said faculty and staff across multiple colleges and departments dedicate their time to KEYS. Since the program was founded, its alumni have gone on to study at the UA, work as lab and staff mentors to current KEYS students, and become groundbreaking researchers themselves.

"We are so proud to be part of the outstanding team that brings this program to life every year," Romero said. "It is inherent in BIO5's mission to support unique programs that engage and inspire our next generation of scientists, and KEYS is now a national model for how to do this, even at the pre-college stage."

The goal of KEYS is to increase the diversity of Arizona high school students interested in pursuing bioscience, biomedical and biotechnology careers by providing them with opportunities to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-world experiences that spark scientific curiosity and discovery. For many students, this may have been the first time they engaged with science outside of a textbook and were able to interact with scientists.

"I think it's important for high school students to understand what kind of options are out there for research careers," said Catherine Smith, associate professor in the UA Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the College of Pharmacy and a member of BIO5. She has been a KEYS mentor for nine years.

"The students can come here and work in a research lab that's focused on a scientific question to add more knowledge to the field," Smith said. "I think it's important for high school students to be exposed to that, so that when they go to a university like the University of Arizona, they know that there are great options out there, and that they can get involved in lab research to see what it’s like before they make a career choice."

This year, Eugene Wang, who attends BASIS Tucson North, ranked as one of the top high schools in the nation, was presented with the opportunity to work in Smith's pharmacology and toxicology lab through KEYS.

Learning the Scientific Process

"Normally, high school students aren't given the opportunity to work in a lab because it is a huge responsibility. So, once I was accepted into the program, I thought it would be great to spend my summer with other high school students learning how the scientific process works in unique work environments such as the University of Arizona labs," Wang said.

"We all learn new things in school, and it's supposed to be preparing us for the real world, but when you actually have to use the things you've learned in a real-life situation, it is a completely different experience. I have learned so much in the weeks that I have been here, and greatly value this opportunity." 

In the lab, Wang has been investigating different side effects of using certain medicines, focusing on a class of enzymes called lysine deacetylases, or KDACs, that aid glucocorticoid steroid receptors in transcribing certain genes. These are then used to treat diseases such as epilepsy, bipolar disorder and cancer.

Another teen participating in the 2016 program, Amanda Ruelas, also is working to better understand disease and medicine. Her project centers around a disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH.

Ruelas, currently attending Sunnyside High School in Tucson, has been working under the direction of Nathan Cherrington, interim director of the Southwestern Environmental Health Sciences Center and a BIO5 member.

Cherrington said KEYS gives students exposure to some of the best research in the world, and it also is a way for the University and those involved in the sciences to reach out to the community and the next generation of students.

The program has been fundamental to many students' academic careers, influencing some participants to choose the UA over other top-tier schools.

Mariana McCune, a 2015 intern, was accepted into New York University; the University of California, Davis; and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

She decided to attend the UA as an Honors College student, carrying a merit award, and intends to major in Spanish and biology. 

"I am confident that KEYS has had a major influence upon my college acceptances and scholarships, as well as my decision to pursue a science major," McCune said. "KEYS has not only served to reaffirm my interest in science, but it has also given me an exciting research opportunity that I certainly would not have had otherwise."

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