High School Researchers Begin ‘Work With a Scientist’ Program

Originally published January 16, 2015

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

With applause from hundreds of hands and clicks from dozens of camera shutters, a proud group of local high school students was initiated into the world of professional scientific studies with the Work With a Scientist Program.

The program, which gives young students a first taste of hands-on research alongside University of Texas at El Paso scientists, is funded by a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. It provides a seven-month internship during which students conduct scientific projects based on their own interests with the support of scientists and laboratory resources. The program also allows educational researchers to understand how to enhance students’ partnerships with scientists.

High school students who were accepted into the 2015 Work With A Scientist Program attended an orientation to meet their colleagues and research leaders on Jan. 10. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News Service
High school students who were accepted into the 2015 Work With A Scientist Program attended an orientation to meet their colleagues and research leaders on Jan. 10. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News Service

Pei-Ling Hsu, Ph.D., assistant professor of science education, launched Work With a Scientist (WWASP) to bridge communication gaps between would-be researchers and those who have already been working in their fields, both within the laboratory and the classroom.

“The spirit of the project is to introduce the pedagogical tool of cogenerative dialogues – in which scientists and high school students discuss and develop the teaching and learning process – with the goal of shortening gaps in knowledge, status or power between them,” Hsu said.

The University’s colleges of Education, Engineering and Science partnered with the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) to provide this immersive learning opportunity for high schoolers to learn the true ins-and-outs of research under the guidance of professional scientists, who also are faculty within those UTEP colleges and their associated departments.

“This is an amazing opportunity for our high school juniors,” said Cynthia Ontiveros, EPISD high school science facilitator and district representative for WWASP, recalling that she wasn’t able to work in a college-level laboratory until she was in her third or fourth year at UTEP. “Their confidence and ability to communicate drastically changes from today, day one, to the day of their presentation. They gain so many skills from science to interacting with professionals. They even change their career goals after this.”

The 36 chosen students from Andress, Chapin and Irvin high schools were joined by more than 100 family members plus faculty and administrators from their schools for the WWASP orientation on Jan. 10 in the University’s Chemistry and Computer Science Building auditorium.

The event presented the opportunity for students to get to know one another and, most excitingly, find out which researcher they would be collaborating with and on what type of project.

Andress student Cecilia Rocha is interested in psychology, but she’s eager to explore immunology with her WWASP team, knowing it can only make her a stronger student. Despite commitments at home, with the high school cheerleading and ROTC squads, and a job as a nail technician, Rocha was determined to squeeze this opportunity into her schedule.

“I can’t wait to work with different people and get new experiences in the sciences,” she said.

Her peer at Chapin High School, Gisel Fregoso, was bubbling over with enthusiasm as the orientation came to a close.

“I can’t believe we’ve been given an opportunity to be part of such a great program, be hands-on with the technology and equipment,” said the junior, who wants to become a biomedical engineer. She and her team will be working on autoimmune disorders as part of their research work.

Hsu and EPISD Superintendent Juan Cabrera delivered welcome speeches. Each of the four UTEP-based researchers then presented short overviews of their scientific area of expertise so the students could get a better grasp of the work in which they’d be participating.

Parents Linda and Robert Hanner were present to cheer on their daughter Vanessa, a junior at Andress interested in becoming a biochemist.

“I was hoping she’d be selected because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Linda Hanner said, adding that she also hopes the program channels more recognition to UTEP for how it reaches out to the community to connect with kids who don’t often receive these types of opportunities.

“We’re impressed with the variety of fields and the depth of research,” Robert added. “They’re not playing around – this is something really serious.”

Karine Fénelon, Ph.D, assistant professor of biological sciences, is impressed with the high school students’ determination and willingness to learn.

“The earlier you expose a child to science, the better it develops thinking skills,” said the researcher, who knows that younger students have the capacity to offer compelling ideas and aims to help draw those out in a very encouraging environment toward the goal of advancing the science within her lab.

“I also get personal satisfaction from being able to train the next generation of scientists,” Fénelon added. She will share with the students her research interests in electrophysiology, optogenetics, synaptic connections, intrinsic properties, neuropsychiatric diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, anxiety and attention-deficit disorders.

Research Assistant Professor Rachid Skouta, Ph.D., was excited to involve young minds in biomedical research.

“More importantly, I think this program will open students’ eyes to different career paths and prepare them to come to UTEP to pursue their dreams,” he said.

Throughout the orientation, Skouta was consistently impressed by his new team’s motivation to learn new skills within the sciences and can’t wait to get them into the lab.

Fénelon and Skouta are joined in leading the high school participants by Assistant Professor of Clinical Laboratory Sciences Jacen Moore, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Charlotte Vines, Ph.D., both of whom will be focusing on immunology during their WWASP tenure.

Each professor will work with nine students in their labs, helped by academic advisers from the high schools and research assistants from the UTEP College of Science.

Challenges from the pilot year of the program that needed to be addressed before this new group came in included providing greater assistance with time management, especially given that students drawn the program are more likely to be involved in many extracurricular activities. Recruitment processes were tweaked to give applicants a better sense of the required commitment before they accepted.

Last year’s participants made videos to help recruit their peers and spoke to how it changed them. As alumni, they now serve as mentors to the new wave of budding researchers.

The high schoolers will commit to one Saturday per month during the spring semester, bumping up to five days a week until their final proposals are ready in late June. Family members will be able to attend a presentation of the work.

Via their participation in WWASP, the 36 students will receive an additional high school science credit and one year of early college science credit to further their future academic success.

Katherine Mullane-Elrick, chemistry teacher and science department chair at Andress High School, said that the program was in high demand at her school, where more than 80 of her students attended an introductory meeting. Forty applied and 17 were chosen from Andress.

“It’s such an amazing opportunity for students who may not take part otherwise,” she said. “Whether the time is there or not, you make the time, because the kids are worth it. Who wouldn’t give up a few Saturdays and weeks during the summer?”