January 29 started out as a typical Wednesday for Tucson University High School juniors Nikhil, Esha and Sonia Mathur – until they got called into the principal’s office.
“We were all a little bit surprised…because it was just us three,” Nikhil said about being called out of AP Statistics with his sisters.
As the trio approached Principal Amy Cislak’s closed door, they were a bit confused. But as the door opened to reveal Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) program staff, along with the triplets’s parents, they knew they had been accepted into the prestigious summer program.
Forty-six other Arizona high school students will join the Mathurs this summer to take part in the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute’s KEYS Research Internship Program.
Since its origin with just nine interns in 2007, the KEYS program has provided a free seven-week summer bioscience research opportunity to almost 500 talented Arizona high school students representing diverse backgrounds.
Through exceptional training and unique, hands-on project experience in top UArizona research labs, KEYS aims to provide Arizona high school students with the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to pursue their personal and professional goals. The program strives to increase the talent and diversity of students pursuing STEM degrees and careers, as well to retain students to in-state colleges and the Arizona workforce.
Choosing the 2020 KEYS class
This year’s cohort was selected from more than 260 competitive applicants. Applicants were initially judged on the strength of their personal statement, teacher recommendations and high school transcript. Ninety top-scoring candidates then interviewed with KEYS staff.
After the Mathur triplets were interviewed, the topic of KEYS consumed a lot of family dinners.
“I don’t know if we got in! I hope they liked us,” Esha remembers wondering.
After the rigorous application and interview process, 50 students representing 26 high schools across the state were selected to be a part of the 2020 program.
KEYS staff coordinated with the principals, teachers and parents of the accepted students to surprise them in-person with their internship acceptances.
“We try to keep it pretty hush-hush, so the students don’t know we’re coming,” said Kelle Hyland, KEYS co-coordinator.
The KEYS team notified Esha, Nikhil and Sonia’s parents of their children’s acceptances about a week before the surprise visit.
“Our parents are the worst at keeping secrets,” Sonia said.
The triplets were amazed their parents kept their cool during all those family dinners.
“The whole time they knew that we got it, but they didn’t tell us anything,” Esha said.
But once their principal’s door opened to reveal the KEYS team and their parents, they knew they were in for a great surprise.
A seven-week experience that will last a lifetime
KEYS interns are paired with leading UArizona researchers spearheading innovative projects that span multiple disciplines including bioscience, engineering, environmental science, biomedicine and biostatics. Faculty, university students and other lab personnel work side-by-side with them to provide an invaluable opportunity to these budding scholars.
Prior to engaging in research, KEYS interns get a one-week crash-course in bioscience techniques and science literacy to ensure they have the foundational knowledge necessary to begin their assigned projects.
Past students have worked with top UArizona research groups to find more effective ways to detect and treat diseases such as cancer and diabetes, as well as helped to create wearable biosensors with the goal of tracking important patient data. Others have studied alternative renewable energy sources, more efficient crop production methods, and the effects of contaminated water sources on people and the environment, among many other projects.
The show must go on
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and university-wide suspension of in-person gatherings, KEYS program staff boldly took on the challenge of quickly transitioning the traditional hands-on summer experience to a virtual program. Instead of conducting hands-on research, students will now participate in computational research from the safety of their homes, while still receiving the same training in science literacy and ethics.
Forty-nine of the original 50 accepted students enthusiastically agreed to continue with the revised KEYS format.
“We were pretty stoked…that KEYS was able to rebound,” Sonia said
Students will work remotely on projects that include using advanced excel techniques to analyze genomic data, reviewing scientific literature and writing code for data analysis programs.
At the end of the summer, KEYS students typically present their work to family, friends and the community at an in-person public research showcase.
Despite COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s showcase will still go on – now virtually. Instead of poster presentations, students will give short PowerPoint presentations with an emphasis on methodology and ethics. Next summer, interns will be invited back to participate in the hands-on program culminating in the public showcase.
Though it was initially difficult to wrap their heads around quality execution of a brand-new KEYS format, Hyland and her co-director, Brooke Moreno, embraced the opportunity and are now excited for the program to begin its revised direction on June 8.
“It’s still KEYS – it’s just changed a little for this year,” Hyland said.
Most high school students typically learn about STEM fields only through textbooks. KEYS provides a unique opportunity to turn those words on a page into reality through hands-on research. This one-of-a-kind experience allows students to explore their passions for scientific discovery while advancing their academic, professional and personal goals.
With the addition of this year's cohort, 526 students will count themselves as KEYS alumni. Nearly all program alumni either attended or are currently attending college to pursue STEM fields. About 75% of KEYS alumni have chosen to attend college in Arizona, with the majority of those attending UArizona. All KEYS alumni accepted to UArizona are automatically accepted into the Honors College and awarded three units of college credit at the completion of the program.
Past interns advanced STEM fields by contributing data to research grant applications and publications. Some present their work at local and national conferences. Many students continue to work in UArizona research laboratories following the conclusion of the program, even some of those still in high school.
The KEYS program is led by the BIO5 Institute and is funded by BIO5 and generous supporters including individuals, families, companies, foundations and various UArizona faculty, colleges and departments. The Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) that helped launch BIO5 almost 20 years ago continues to be a catalyst in enabling effective, cross-disciplinary bioscience research, innovation and impact at the University of Arizona, and also enables world-class student engagement programs like KEYS.