Written by Leslie Blair
It is rare that high school students get the opportunity to work on a real research project in a state-of-the-art microbiology laboratory alongside faculty and graduate students at a premiere research university. But that’s exactly what 14 Austin students had the chance to do in July.
The students are part of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement’s UT Outreach Austin, one of five outreach centers that assist high-achieving students who attend underserved high schools. Through a National Science Foundation Career Award grant, Dr. Chris Sullivan, assistant professor in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at The University of Texas at Austin, has hosted UT Outreach Austin students the last three years for a two-week summer research seminar.
Dr. Chris Sullivan, assistant professor in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, has conducted internships with UT Outreach-Austin students for the past three summers.
Sullivan’s high school internship program, the Virology Research Project, engages high school students in hands-on research activities to strengthen their skills and knowledge in the laboratory and pique their interest in science as a major and a career.
“Minimally, their participation will give them a taste of how fun science can be, and even if they don’t end up in a scientific profession, the interaction with some of UT’s brightest undergrads and faculty, should be of value a few years down the road when deciding on a college,” explained Sullivan.
As members of Sullivan’s research team, this year the high school students get to do real-world research on molecular biology, evolution and viruses. Using the university’s biomedical engineering lab, the young researchers collect and analyze fruit flies taken from around the Austin area to identify novel viruses, helping Sullivan with the larger goal of exploring how human viruses cause cancer. The goal is to build a model of human viral disease in this well-characterized laboratory model organism, thereby leading to new insights into the mechanisms of human viral diseases, particularly cancer.
UT Outreach-Austin students get the chance to learn from graduate students in microbiology as well as top faculty members.
The students also have the opportunity to rub elbows with premiere faculty members. This year Dr. Andrew Ellington, Wilson M. and Kathryn Fraser Research Professor in Biochemistry, and Dr. Brent Iverson, department chair and University Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, made presentations.
Patrick Patterson, executive director of UT Outreach Austin, couldn’t agree more. “Collaborations like the virology program with Dr. Sullivan are extremely motivating because they place our students in direct contact with the college environment in a classroom or lab setting,” he said.
But the students gain more than real-life experience in a scientific research lab. “They also find out that professors and graduate students are approachable and that the learning environment in college is fun,” said Sullivan.
This is extremely important for youth from groups historically underrepresented on college campuses, Patterson pointed out, because they often don’t consider themselves to be strong applicants to major research universities like The University of Texas at Austin. Programs like UT Outreach are vital for bringing students into a safe, fun research setting where they can test the waters, and find that their potential is unlimited.
“The positive environment created by the professor instills the confidence in our students that they truly belong in a highly rigorous, stimulating academic space,” said Patterson.