Photo Essay: UA Training the Next Generation of STEM Specialists

July 22, 2014

This summer, 45 high school students from Tucson, Tuba City, Scottsdale, Phoenix and Nogales took part in an innovative University of Arizona program called KEYS – Keep Engaging Youth in Science. During the seven-week immersion program, the students served as interns alongside faculty members, postdoctoral students and graduate students in various UA laboratories.

Monica Schmidt, an assistant professor in the School of Plant Sciences, supports KEYS intern Melisa Bohlman. (Photo credit: Chad Westover from Biomedical Communications)

The program is one example of the UA's focus on accelerating student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM fields. During the program, the student interns were trained in bioscience techniques and communication skills, and performed hands-on scientific laboratory research. The KEYS students earned three UA academic credits for their efforts. 

"KEYS is designed to reflect one of the University's primary outreach initiatives: to create pre-college opportunities that attract and retain the best and brightest students to the UA," said Dr. Fernando Martinez, director of the BIO5 Institute at the UA.

Ted Trouard, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, (left) with lab mentor Mike Valdez and Brian Liu, a KEYS intern. (Photo credit: Mark Thaler from Biomedical Communications)

The program is co-directed by staff at BIO5 and the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center at the UA College of Pharmacy. It relies on financial support from foundation, corporate and UA sponsorships, as well as contributions from individual donors. Program leaders are currently working to build an endowment to enhance student support under the program.

The program came to a close Friday with the KEYS Research Showcase, where students presented their work to members of their scientific communities, their families and the general public.

"They've learned how to ask questions, develop leadership skills and succeed in a college environment," Kimberly Andrews Espy, UA senior vice president for research, said during Friday's program.

"Programs like KEYS are developed to create a pre-college pipeline for our state's best and brightest students to experience the best and brightest of what the UA has to offer," Espy said, adding that the program's long-term goal is to improve diversity in STEM-related fields. 

KEYS intern Mateo Mahoney presents his research on medical devices during the program's research showcase. (Photo credit: Chad Westover from Biomedical Communications)

Since the program began in 2007, more than 90 UA faculty members have mentored 233 interns, with more than half of the students from backgrounds underrepresented in science careers. Among all KEYS alumni, 78 are still high school students and 155 have gone on to pursue higher education.

"These statistics are important to the UA, important to our state, and important as we look to build our next generation of scientists in order to solve many of the grand biological challenges that lie ahead," Espy said.

Espy said the program also aligns with the UA's "Never Settle" strategic plan. Of note, students gain real-life laboratory experiences, which help them in degree and career choices, Espy said. KEYS also serves as a mentorship opportunity for undergraduates and graduate and postdoctoral students – and students often return to volunteer in UA labs after the KEYS internship ends.

KEYS intern Samantha Andrade (left) speaks with Serrine Lau, director of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center. Andrade works directly with UA researcher Terrence Monks, who shares a lab space and collaborates closely with Lau. (Photo credit: Jeb Zirato from Biomedical Communications)

KEYS enables pre-college students to contribute to ongoing, innovative research at the UA. "They bring an open and enthusiastic perspective and offer fresh ideas that research mentors often apply," she said.

To date, 87 KEYS interns have chosen to attend the UA, with 18 set to enter the University as freshmen this fall. While the majority of students pursue degrees in STEM, some choose to study in programs such as pharmacy and business.
"The top KEYS programmatic goal is to give students real-world experiences that spark scientific curiosity and discovery, which can play a huge role in helping them decide whether to pursue science careers," said Serrine Lau, director of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center.

Dozens of KEYS interns have earned recognition as well as competitive scholarships, including the Wildcat Excellence Award, National Merit Scholarships and Flinn Scholarships.
"I believe that programs like KEYS highlight the very best of the UA in terms of experiential learning opportunities," said Rick Myers, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents and a staunch advocate of the UA program. "Top-performing students from diverse backgrounds who are able to spend quality time on campus and work in laboratories with our world-class researchers while still in high school are far more likely to be excited about returning as undergraduates."

All photos courtesy of Biomedical Communications and the BIO5 Institute at the UA

Contacts: Lisa Romero of the UA BIO5 Institute at 520-626-9598 or; Karin Lorentzen of the UA College of Pharmacy at 520-626-3725 or

Below are images of students working in UA laboratories with principle investigators and lab mentors, and also presenting their work during the KEYS Research Showcase:

UA professor and biomedical engineer Jennifer Barton (left) with lab mentor Weston Welge and KEYS intern Olivia Austin. (Photo credit: Chad Westover from Biomedical Communications)

David Cai, a KEYS intern, presents his research during the recent showcase. KEYS affiliates believe that the ability to communicate science to a non-science audience is an important and valuable skill, so KEYS students participate in weekly workshops and also discuss and present their research. (Photo credit: Chad Westover from Biomedical Communications)

Lab mentor and KEYS Crew member Yurika Isoe and KEYS intern Jazmin Greyeyes work in the Miesfeld Lab, one centered on studying blood meal metabolism in mosquitoes. (Photo credit: Chad Westover from Biomedical Communications)

The 7-week KEYS Internship program is a unique summer opportunity for high school students who have an interest in bioscience, engineering, environmental health or biostatistics.

KEYS interns learn laboratory techniques, practice reading scientific literature, communicate about science and work to improve presentation and writing skills.

KEYS interns learn about cutting edge research at the UA and STEM careers.

KEYS intern Melisa Bohlman presents during the program's poster session, held at the end of the program. (Photo credit: Chad Westover from Biomedical Communications)

KEYS interns work 40 hours a week in UA research laboratories.

Lab mentor Vicki Chu (left) works with KEYS intern Venecia Yazzie. (Photo credit: Chad Westover from Biomedical Communications)