High school senior Zander Harris has always been curious about how scientists make discoveries in laboratories, and how medical professionals prepare for their careers. He wondered what it would it be like to slip on a white coat and work shoulder to shoulder with real scientists in a real medical lab.
Wonder no more, young Zander.
He and five schoolmates from Jack Yates High School experienced all of the above during the STEM RISE summer program, which recently concluded a seven-week session at the University of Houston. The research lab experience and hands-on lessons covering the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, immersed students in the work and daily life of UH science laboratories.
“The first week in the lab, everything was really new to me. I remember that first day very vividly. We walked into the lab and they started telling us about staining slides. That was the first week, and I was so excited to be a part of it,” Zander said as he addressed the audience at a July 29 symposium that marked the students’ successful completion of their classes and lab time.
“Through this program we are working toward diminishing the opportunity gap that disproportionally impacts minoritized students."
The six students, now juniors and seniors at Yates, were the first high school students to join STEM RISE (the program’s full name is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Research Inquiry Summer Enrichment). The program, from the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine, in partnership with Jack Yates High School in Houston’s Third Ward, aims to encourage curious young scholars and help improve the racial and ethnic diversity of professionals who enter scientific and medical fields.
In addition to engaging in STEM lessons, the Yates students (under direction of UH faculty, medical students and undergraduate students) participated in one of three UH research projects:
- Studies of either neuromodulation of hypertension or the anatomy and function of the spleen, directed by Mario Romero-Ortega, professor of biomedical engineering and biomedical sciences at the Cullen College of Engineering and Fertitta Family College of Medicine
- Explorations of breast cancer treatments directed by two collaborating professors: Fatima Merchant, engineering technology chair in the College of Technology, and Meghana Trivedi, associate professor of pharmacy practice and translational research in the College of Pharmacy
In their lab work, the students were guided – cheered along, too – by their near-peer STEM RISE mentors. That team comprised UH undergraduates and medical students.
The mentors, well on the way to professional roles in their chosen fields, devoted their summer to watching their new, younger colleagues nurture visions of science careers being within reach, while they also furthered their own preparation as future doctors and STEM teachers.
“At STEM RISE we are mindful of the ways in which students of color are not only underrepresented but also underestimated. Through this program we are working toward diminishing the opportunity gap that disproportionally impacts minoritized students. Meanwhile, UH is gaining an incredible opportunity to host hard working and brilliant Third Ward students while we also better prepare our undergraduates and medical students to serve their community,” said Mariam Manuel, co-director of STEM RISE and clinical assistant professor for teachHOUSTON, UH’s secondary STEM teacher preparation program.
“The practical skills the high school students learn here – how to make connections between what they see on a slide and what they see in the lab – are tasks the students may never exactly repeat again, but the bigger picture is about learning how to solve problems,” said Sierra Cowan, a UH medical student and STEM RISE mentor.
The program is funded by a three-year $300,000 Improving Undergraduate STEM Education grant from the National Science Foundation. Other funding came from John and Peggy Prugh and the Dr. Patrice O. Yarbough Research Gateway scholarships.
A passion for science was fast-tracked for Yarbough, named a Distinguished UH Alumni in 2017, the summer before her own senior year at Yates. A retired NASA senior scientist, she received NASA’s 2020 Silver Achievement Medal for outstanding leadership as principal investigator for the space agency's Human Exploration Research Analog mission to Mars.
In the earliest planning sessions, Manuel and fellow STEM RISE principal investigators Thomas Thesen, associate professor of neuroscience at the Fertitta Family College of Medicine, and Jacqueline Ekeoba, master teacher in UH’s teachHouston program, started to work with Jack Yates High School as their high school partner. Not only does Yates share a neighborhood with UH, its students, faculty and administration have been collaborating with the University in other programs as part of the Third Ward Initiative.
"They can remember their journey with pride and, from a position of knowledge and confidence, pursue their dream career.”
STEM RISE scholars were recruited for their curiosity, openness to explore new science horizons and willingness to invest their summer in STEM research. The program was developed in close collaboration with April LaSalle, a Yates graduate, former science teacher and now assistant principal at the school.
“I’ve seen partnerships through different lenses,” LaSalle told the symposium. “I’ve seen it through the lens of a student, the lens as a teacher and the lens as a leader on campus. And I’ve seen partnerships come and go. That’s the part I kept pressing – sustainability … So what are we going to do to make sure this is not just another fleeting partnership that runs out? My keyword has been sustainability.”
LaSalle was especially grateful when the Prughs generously stepped forward with funding for scholarships that allowed Yates students to commit to STEM RISE instead of summer jobs. Their gifts also supported the UH undergraduates who spent their summer as STEM RISE mentors.
“April LaSalle, as our main partner at the school, understood the situation from all angles. Her insight on how we could connect with students who were curious, inquisitive and creative was the biggest factor in making this a success as these are key characteristics in pursuing and persisting in STEM,” Ekeoba said.
Students’ motivations to join the program varied. For Zander, it was a chance to gain speed toward his dream of a medical career.
For Myia Andrews, a Yates junior working toward becoming a pediatrician, STEM RISE offered a way to explore new ideas. “One thing I really liked was going into the anatomy lab and looking at the heart and seeing what it really looks like,” she said in her symposium remarks. “I have learned a lot of things during this experience. And I will take it on, going through life.”
Lab work attracted Jasmine Smith, a senior and like Zander a student in Yates’ international baccalaureate program. “Not only were we learning a lot about medical things, but they were also teaching us about life things, as well. And they were helping us in researching our colleges, because a lot of people aren’t being taught this,” she explained in her symposium remarks.
Jade Christopher has her eye trained on being a traveling nurse or an obstetrics nurse. Jada Preston, a Yates junior, intends to be an orthodontist, and her twin sister Jade is preparing to be a dental hygienist.
Each STEM RISE student interviewed a UH faculty member for career insights. Jade Preston recalled her visit with Donna Stokes, UH physics professor and associate dean for undergraduate student affairs and student success. “I took inspiration from a quote she said, ‘If you like it, if you love it, be passionate about it and pursue it. Do not let what others say deter you from what you want to do. Don’t be afraid of a challenge.’ ”
A different scenario convinced Alexia Changalpet, biology major and one of 16 teachHOUSTON undergraduate students in STEM RISE: “I’ve always been interested in lab research, but it’s a thing I never got to do. My first year of college was during COVID, so most of my labs were online. I didn’t get that in-the-lab feeling.”
STEM RISE made her science ambition come to life, and it also provided this future teacher a way to help younger students along in their path.
“I felt like I was in a position to mentor and be mentored,” Changalpet said.
The lead program organizers hope to double the number of high school participants next summer, while acknowledging additional funding is needed to ensure the program’s future success.
“Our STEM RISE scholars are now at a stage where they have a better idea what a science-based and medical career looks like and how to go about it,” Thesen said. “Whichever path they choose, they can take forward the lessons they learned in their STEM RISE summer and the connections they made. They can remember their journey with pride and, from a position of knowledge and confidence, pursue their dream career.”