By Ashlynnn Neumeyer:

Summer is here and that means we again welcome central Indiana high school students to research labs in Indianapolis for the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute’s (CTSI) Project STEM summer research program, which includes Indianapolis Project STEM, Indianapolis Project SEED and the Future Scientists Program.

Project STEM 2018 group photo
2018 Project STEM program staff, participants, and their families at a recent kick-off meeting. (Andrea Zeek/Indiana CTSI photo)

This year, the program is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American Chemical Society starting the national Project SEED program in 1968, and the 45th anniversary of the beginning of the Indianapolis program at IU School of Medicine in 1973.

Program director Elmer Sanders, who is also a science teacher at Southport High School, said each student participating in Project STEM receives hands-on experience in university or industry research labs and is assigned a professional researcher as their mentor. While in the lab, mentors guide students through experiments and teach essential skills needed for prospective careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields.

“The Indianapolis program alone has hundreds of testimonials from students who have gone on to accomplishment great things after their internships,” Sanders said. “We even had a student who participated in our program in 2013 and 2014 receive a perfect score on the MCAT and is going on to get his MD/PhD at Vanderbilt University.”

The CTSI’s Project STEM program continues to grow each year, with a total of 101 students participating this year — 17 of whom are returning for their second year. Most interns are from Marion and surrounding counties, but a few come from as far as Monroe County. This year, students are performing research at four locations across Indianapolis: Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), IU School of Medicine, Eli Lilly and Company, and the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute (IBRI).

James Marrs, PhD, a biology professor in the IUPUI School of Science, has served as a research mentor for the program for 10 years now.

“The students in Project SEED are outstanding,” Dr. Marrs said. “I love seeing students succeed in their goals and having their energy and enthusiasm in the laboratory during the summer.”

Seventeen-year-old Sherlyn Contreras, an incoming senior at Pike High School, said she enjoyed the program so much that she is returning for her second year this summer as a student researcher in Dr. Marrs’ lab. Last summer, Sherlyn said she studied how certain gene injections had the ability to reverse negative effects in fetal development caused by ethanol in alcohol. Now, she will be examining the effects of ethanol on developing fetuses.

Project STEM students take a break
Project STEM student participants take a break to eat and socialize outside on the IU School of Medicine campus. (Andrea Zeek/Indiana CTSI photo)

Another program participant, Bloomington North High School senior Mohamed Naji, 17, said he heard about the program through a friend who completed the experience a few years before. He is working in the lab of IUPUI School of Science chemistry professor Dr. Frederique Deiss, PhD.  

“This is all pretty cool,” Mohamed said. “We’re making devices and seeing all this lab equipment that I’ve never seen before in school. The first couple of days, I thought I was going to be doing the same things they ask of me over and over again, but I’m actually doing independent work.”

Mohamed said he has already learned more about chemistry after just one week in the program, and he expects he will be able to pass Advanced Placement chemistry test this fall with no problem after a whole summer on hands-on learning.

Sanders said the CTSI’s Project STEM program is important because it gives high school students the ability to be fully immersed in science at an early age.

“Most of our high achieving students have transitioned to abstract thinking and are developing native intuitions about scientific research after the program,” Sanders said. “Also, they often develop long-term relationships with their same lab (mentors) and generally connect with a research lab their first year of college.”

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