2018 KEYS interns pose with their successful protein gel during biotechnology training. (Photo: Deanna Sanchez)
2018 KEYS interns pose with their successful protein gel during biotechnology training. (Photo: Deanna Sanchez)

Giving Students the KEYS to STEM Success

"KEYS is one of the reasons that I can’t wait to find my role in using science to make the world a better place," incoming University of Arizona freshman Kyle Kline said of the BIO5 KEYS Summer Research Internship program.
July 9, 2018
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KEYS Research Internship Program

  • Applications received in 2018: 251
  • Number of high schools across Arizona reflected in applications: 61
  • Students accepted into program: 50
  • Average GPA: unweighted 3.88, weighted 4.34
  • KEYS alumni now attending one of Arizona's three public universities: 72% (majority at UA)
  • KEYS alumni at UA pursuing STEM-related degrees: 88%
  • UA faculty participation: More than 135 have mentored KEYS interns since 2007
UA Associate Research Scientist Leif Abrell mentored 2016 KEYS intern Stanley Wong, who is majoring in chemical and environmental engineering at the UA. Wong said, "My KEYS experience opened me up to new opportunities, new ideas and new friends that I would never have had without this program. It was my first time conducting research, and it was a really fun experience. Two years later, I still work in the lab I interned in.” (Photo: Robert Meares)
UA Associate Research Scientist Leif Abrell mentored 2016 KEYS intern Stanley Wong, who is majoring in chemical and environmental engineering at the UA. Wong said, "My KEYS experience opened me up to new opportunities, new ideas and new friends that I would never have had without this program. It was my first time conducting research, and it was a really fun experience. Two years later, I still work in the lab I interned in.” (Photo: Robert Meares)
Kyle Kline (left), a 2017 KEYS alumnus, worked in the lab of Betsy Arnold (right). Kline, who will be a UA freshman this fall, said, "KEYS took science beyond the textbook. During my time at the UA, I was able to sample the life of a researcher and begin to understand the demanding work environment of a professional research laboratory. And, for the first time in my life, I was able to conduct experiments that didn’t have a predetermined answer." (Photo: Robert Meares)
Kyle Kline (left), a 2017 KEYS alumnus, worked in the lab of Betsy Arnold (right). Kline, who will be a UA freshman this fall, said, "KEYS took science beyond the textbook. During my time at the UA, I was able to sample the life of a researcher and begin to understand the demanding work environment of a professional research laboratory. And, for the first time in my life, I was able to conduct experiments that didn’t have a predetermined answer." (Photo: Robert Meares)
Zcheecid Aguirre, a 2016 KEYS alumna, graduated from Tucson's Desert View High School and is attending the UA, where she is majoring in veterinary sciences. She said, "KEYS was the first glimpse I had into the research world, and it was insightful in ways I never could have anticipated." (Courtesy of Zcheecid Aguirre)
Zcheecid Aguirre, a 2016 KEYS alumna, graduated from Tucson's Desert View High School and is attending the UA, where she is majoring in veterinary sciences. She said, "KEYS was the first glimpse I had into the research world, and it was insightful in ways I never could have anticipated." (Courtesy of Zcheecid Aguirre)

Fifty high school students were selected from 251 highly competitive applicants to take part in the 12th annual University of Arizona KEYS Research Internship program, one of the state's premier pathways for developing STEM skills in pre-college students.

During the course of the seven-week free program, interns train in bioscience techniques and communication skills and perform hands-on scientific research, working side-by-side with faculty and postdoctoral and graduate students on projects being conducted in UA labs. At the close of the program, the interns present what they have learned at a public research showcase, to be held July 20.

Past projects have included creating better ways to detect and treat disease, exploring the effect of contaminated water sources on population and the environment, studying the impact of plants and animals on ecosystems, and analyzing the role genes play in human health.

"Our top KEYS programmatic goal is to give students hands-on research experiences with real-world application that spark scientific curiosity and discovery, which can play a huge role in helping them decide whether to pursue science careers," said Lisa Romero, senior director of public affairs and engagement for BIO5. "For many students, this will be the first time they are exposed to science outside of a textbook and are able to interact with scientists as real people."

This year's KEYS interns hailed from a cross section of Southern Arizona high schools in addition to schools in Tuba City, Scottsdale, Phoenix, Gilbert, Mesa, Chandler, Glendale, Buckeye, Douglas and Yuma. Since its 2007 inception, the program has allowed 428 Arizona teens — at least half of them from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in science careers and 30 percent first-generation college students — to participate in bioscience, biomedicine, engineering, environmental health or biostatistics internships.

Once they have completed a KEYS internship, students receive three academic credits and gain automatic acceptance into the UA Honors College.

"I am so impressed with the students who 'live' with us at BIO5 during the summer," Romero said. "The interns report over and over that nothing compares to the hands-on lab experience they receive through KEYS, and that this type of program provides them with the 'glue' that sways them to come back as undergraduates."

The KEYS Research Internship program has earned national acclaim for successfully pairing young scientists with renowned research mentors. Along the way, it has become a pipeline for students who have leveraged the program’s impact to apply for prominent academic scholarships. Many students say the experiences they had as KEYS interns influenced their college choice, and a large percentage chose to remain in Arizona.

Data show that 72 percent of KEYS alumni currently attend or graduated from one of Arizona's three public universities, with the majority of those choosing the UA. Six KEYS interns in the last three years alone have become Flinn Scholars and chose the UA to pursue their undergraduate degrees, making the KEYS program a valuable pipeline to student success.

The Flinn Scholarship program, supported by the Phoenix-based Flinn Foundation and state universities for more than three decades, provides an unparalleled package for undergraduate study at an Arizona public university for approximately 20 of the state's highest-achieving high school seniors each year. The prestigious merit-based award has a value of more than $120,000, which covers the cost of tuition, fees, room and board, and provides funding for at least two study-abroad experiences.

"Participating in KEYS gave me the opportunity to not only test out the university experience at the UA, hear about professions in the biosciences and conduct research, but it also assured me that I would be able to adapt to change," said Tissiana Vallecillo, a 2017 KEYS intern who recently graduated from BASIS Chandler High School "With that reassurance, I came into my senior year excited about college and scholarship applications and was able to confidently take these important next steps."

For Vallecillo, KEYS made the next step easy.

"Once I found out I was awarded the Flinn Scholarship, I had no doubt in my mind that I would have an incredible and fulfilling experience at the University of Arizona," said Vallecillo, who will double majoring in neuroscience and cellular biology when she enters the UA this fall.

"Like the Flinn Scholarship, the KEYS program invests in Arizona's future by providing a stellar academic experience to top students at the dawn of their careers," said Flinn Foundation Executive Vice President Brad Halvorsen. "It's terrific to see that so many KEYS students have gone on to become Flinn Scholars and contribute to not only Arizona's public universities but our local communities and state. We hope they will become Arizona's leaders of tomorrow, whether in the biosciences or any other field."

The UA's BIO5 Institute leads and administers the KEYS program. Community, alumni and campus supporters — including all five of BIO5's foundational colleges, as well as the Honors College — assist in funding KEYS so that the program remains free to the interns.

"KEYS beautifully blends BIO5's tri-mission of championing innovative research initiatives, inspiring our next generation of scientists and positively impacting the state of Arizona," said to Jennifer Barton, director of BIO5 and a faculty mentor to students in almost every KEYS cohort since 2007. "In addition, KEYS has proven that experiential learning opportunities, which allow top-performing students to spend quality time on campus and work in labs while still in high school, are far more likely to create compelling reasons for them be excited about returning as undergraduates."