Trading Pipets for Keyboards: KEYS Goes Virtual

The BIO5 KEYS Research Internship Program will take a new form this summer as 49 students engage in computational projects from the safety of their homes.
Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Communications

Since 2007, the BIO5 Institute has provided a unique, seven-week summer research opportunity to almost 500 outstanding Arizona high school students to date. Despite COVID-19, this summer won’t be any different. 

Through the Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) Research Internship Program, talented high school students from across the state come to the University of Arizona to engage in bioscience research with the university’s best faculty. Interns not only receive research experience, but also receive training in science literacy and ethics. 

KEYS aims to educate and empower students to explore their passions for scientific discovery while advancing their academic, professional and personal 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.

Because of the restrictions placed on in-person UArizona gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, KEYS 2020 will pivot in the form of a virtual internship - instead of pipetting at the bench wearing white lab coats, interns will work from home on data science projects. 

“When this COVID-19 outbreak occurred, we were really scared and disappointed that KEYS was going to be cancelled,” Sonia Mathur, a junior at Tucson’s University High School said. 

Sonia will be joined by her brother Nikhil and sister Esha as 2020 KEYS interns. 

“KEYS was kind of a needle in a haystack,” Sonia said, “so we were so stoked that KEYS will be able to rebound off (the pandemic) and create a virtual session.”

A quick transition
As soon as BIO5 leadership learned of the university’s on-campus COVID-19 restrictions and contemplated their options for this summer, they decided to transition KEYS to an online format. 

“Despite losing the traditional hands-on component so integral to the KEYS experience, our talented program coordinators, Brooke Moreno and Kelle Hyland, have been working diligently with the rest of the KEYS support team and other BIO5 staff and student workers to ensure the essence and impact of the internship remains the same,” said Lisa Romero, senior director of public affairs, communications and engagement for BIO5. “This team has creatively and collaboratively pulled off something incredibly impressive in a very short timeframe, and I believe our KEYS interns will actually receive a value-add experience, not simply a replacement program.”

“We want to mirror the DNA of KEYS,” said Moreno of the program’s revised direction. “We’re just expressing it differently.” 

Potential UArizona faculty mentors were immediately solicited for remote projects. While some of their labs had been temporarily shut down due to the pandemic, 20 of the original mentors were able to redirect their existing projects to fit the new KEYS model. With assistance from Dr. Jennifer Barton, director of the BIO5 Institute, the KEYS team connected with an additional 15 new faculty mentors who were excited to take on virtual interns.  

In previous years, students were solely matched with faculty based on the research interests expressed in their interviews. But this year, once a new list of available mentors and projects had been compiled, students were asked to select their top choices. Nearly half were matched with their top choices. 

According to incoming intern, Esha Mathur, what makes the KEYS program special is the ability for students to work on projects they are passionate about alongside professors who have spent years dedicating themselves to studying those topics. 

“It’s really cool we’re going to be mentored by them, even though it’s online,” she said. 

From the lab bench to the computer 
Moreno and Hyland enlisted the help of Dr. Uwe Hilgert, associate research professor and director of industry relations and workforce development at BIO5, to adapt the existing KEYS curriculum to fit the new direction of the program. Because Hilgert has experience developing, gathering and sharing resources for online training and learning on computational techniques, he was the perfect addition to the team.

“With the opportunity this KEYS pivot provided, we are going to be able to introduce student participants to the concepts and tools required to work with big data, bioinformatics, virtual computing, programming, cybersecurity and many other aspects of data-intensive biomedical research,” said Hilgert. 

“As this type of research is at the cutting-edge of scientific development, I can imagine this year's KEYS will serve as an excellent pilot program with the potential to pursue grant funding to help support KEYS for the next three to five years.”

In previous years, students were immersed in a one-week crash-course in science literacy and ethics. This year, students will learn to “read like a scientist” in the weeks prior to the start of the program so the first week can be focused on understanding data science.

Hilgert will lead the students through courses on various programming languages and data ethics so they have the foundation they need to succeed once they begin their research projects.

Students will then work remotely for six weeks on projects that include using advanced Excel techniques to analyze genomic data, reviewing scientific literature and writing code for data analysis programs. They’ll also meet once a week in small groups to provide support and share resources on their projects. Several projects will involve COVID-19 data and literature analysis, allowing high schoolers to contribute to advances against this pandemic. 

At the end of the summer, students traditionally 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.

Keeping the fun alive
A favorite aspect of many interns is the social nature of KEYS. In previous years, students engaged in bi-weekly activities like hiking, bowling and potlucks in order to foster teamwork, collaboration and friendship outside of the lab.

KEYS assistants Robyn Pratt and Marissa Romero plan to maintain this cohort’s comradery through virtual ice breakers and socials like pet “show and tell,” a scavenger hunt and a movie night.