Episode 10: Transforming the textbook into a real-world research experience

Science talks - KEYS
Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS), BIO5's flagship research internship program, provides students with the power of discovery.
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

Most high school students - let alone college students - ever receive the opportunity to apply lessons learned in their STEM textbooks to solving real-world problems. Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) coordinators Brooke Moreno and Kelle Hyland discuss how the BIO5 Institute’s flagship high school research internship program solves this problem. They’re also joined by two KEYS Crew leaders - BIO5 Outreach and Engagement Specialist Marissa Romero and BIO5 Public Affairs Student Assistant Robyn Pratt - who share what makes this program so unique as they gear up for the launch of 2021 program on June 7. 

What does the KEYS program mean to you?

KH: The KEYS program is an opportunity for those that normally wouldn't have it to experience what true research in a lab is like before they decide on a career in science so that they have some direction and resources to help them along the way. It's an amazing program that I wish was around when I was young.

BM: I agree on changing views on science, but I also agree that not everyone's a scientist or a bench scientist. We have fantastic accountants, science communicators, and everyone in between that helps make science successful. Exposing students to science through KEYS is the first step to showing them the plethora of careers available.

When you're at a school encouraging students to apply to KEYS, what do you highlight?

MR: I talk a lot about the community and KEYS family. You walk away from the program with 50 or more new friends that are all passionate about the same things and are people you can bounce ideas off. It’s great having that before you go into college, and I feel like you can't really find that anywhere else.

Robyn, you’ve been a KEYS intern, mentor and now are Crew Captain. Talk about the experience on both sides. 

RP: When I was an intern, I knew two weeks in I wanted to be a part of this program for years to come. I just absolutely fell in love with the people and the mission.
As soon as I walked into the room at the start of the program, I felt accepted and encouraged and inspired by the science that was going on around me. 

Like Marissa said, I really enjoyed the community of people around me as an intern. Now, being on the staff side is great because I get be a part of creating that community and openness to being yourself while learning science to others.

It can be hard for researchers of any level to be asked a tough question that doesn’t have an easy answer. How do you help the KEYS students be more comfortable and confident in talking about their science? 

RP: Improv Professor is one of my favorite activities we do over the summer to get them out of their comfort zones. About two weeks in, we congratulate all the students on their newly received Ph.D.s. We then call them up and ask them to present their research to us. 

We open an entirely random PowerPoint they've never seen, and the first thing they have to present is complicated rocket science. They're standing up in front of their peers, having to explain something that we can't even explain. It tests their improv ability so that when we fast forward to the showcase, they’re prepared to answer those hard questions. 

A big part of the program is “match-making” between the interns and the KEYS mentors. Can you tell us a bit about that process?

BM: Our pedagogy is “student-centered learning.” We really try to activate that intrinsic motivation - that innate desire to study or to learn – and we actualize that based on their interests.

We capture that through our application process, and that authentic passion to want to do scientific research is actually the greatest weight in our application process. They create a letter of interest, and we provide them prompts to talk about including what they're passionate about. 

For the students that qualify for interviews, we spend a lot of the time talking about their scientific interests to make sure we can find the right fit for them. 

In 2020, we were met with a huge global challenge. Instead of canceling the KEYS program amid the pandemic, you chose to entirely pivot to an online model. Tell us about that experience. 

KH: At the time that COVID hit, and everyone was staying home, we had already selected our class to participate in the traditional, in-person 2020 program. We had to quickly make a lot of decisions, with safety being the number one concern at that point. 

A lot of programs on campus were choosing to cancel and postpone until the next summer, and we just felt terrible. Lisa Romero felt that we would do them a disservice to cancel, so she spoke with one of our instructors from last summer, Dr. Uwe Hilgert, to see if he was willing to teach our kids some data science skills. 

We felt like that was the logical step to providing something for them to where they could engage in research and be able to learn these new skills and apply them, even if it wasn't exactly that traditional wet lab experience.

We sent an email to all the selected interns and said, “We're very sorry we can't have this in-person experience, but we'd like to offer you the opportunity to be with us virtually all summer. Instead of learning biotechnology skills, we're going to teach you the data science skills you'll need to participate in research.” 

That was before most students had really been online for a long time, so it was new to all of us to be in the chair, on-camera for eight hours each day training week. The students just hung in with us, and we all made the best of it, but it was amazing because we did pivot. We provided that training. They all did wonderfully amazing projects, and then they come to the Showcase and just knock it out of the park.

I felt so much pride for them and for us – we did something we’ve never done before, and it was phenomenal. I give the students all the credit in the world, and to the researchers for being able to pivot with us.

Brooke, you’ve had one of the more unique experiences, as you started with the KEYS program as an intern, and then you were student worker, and now you're a program coordinator. Talk about the evolution of your role and some of the highlights you’ve had. 

BM: My story is just a testament to the support structure that as a student I wasn't aware of. Now being on the other side, I can see as clear as day how intentional we are about layering that mentoring and institutional support to our students.

As a KEYS intern, I failed a lot, but it was with Dr. Marti Lindsey's mentorship, my KEYS crew mentors, and my lab mentor, Dr. Heddwen Brooks, that showed me failing is fantastic: I'm failing because I'm trying something new, something I don't know how to do, and that changed everything for me. 

I got bit by the STEM bug and the education bug. When I say KEYS was hiring, I applied and was fortunately was able to work here. What I found transitioning from an intern to my student role as an undergrad and eventually to my full-time staff position is that the BIO5 Institute is a place of education and that their primary objective with research, outreach and education is creating a learning place for STEM. Even as a professional, the opportunities to fail in my work allow me to come up with innovative programming for the KEYS program and to continue to support students and let them fail fantastically and be okay with that. 

Robyn, what’s your favorite part of KEYS?

RP: My wow moment is something that happens every year. You don't normally get the opportunity to be in a room or on a Zoom call with 50 plus people who are just so excited to be there and so passionate about the same thing that you're passionate about. I remember coming home after KEYS when I was an intern and just buzzing because you feed off the energy from the community. It's not very often that you get to share such a passion with so many people.

What’s your best advice for an incoming KEYS intern? 

KH: Never give up, keep persevering. Remember that failure is not a bad thing. It's a learning tool.

RP: Embrace the transformation. My KEYS summer was the summer I've grown the most. Embrace the failures and learn from them. 

MR: Remain open-minded and don't get discouraged from the downfalls that you'll experience, because it will just make you that much better in the end.