Mesa High biotech teens bound for college labs (Arizona Republic article)

June 10, 2006

By hammersmith

[Source: Josh Kelley, Arizona Republic] — As their classmates are soaking in sun by the pool or working summer jobs, a handful of students from Mesa High’s Biotech Academy will be conducting scientific research in college laboratories in Tucson, Tempe and Mesa over the next several weeks. In March, a group of students from the Biotech Academy took a trip to the University of Arizona, where they met with science professors and toured research labs. Xan Simonson, director of the academy, said the professors were impressed with her students and wanted them to apply for the university’s Summer of Excellence program, which is part of the Honors College.

Five juniors from Mesa High were accepted and will spend five weeks living on the university campus in Tucson and several hours a day researching plant science with professors and other students. One senior from Mesa will also take part in the program for 10 weeks before starting college at UA in the fall. “For a high school student to get in a research lab at such a young age is a great opportunity for these kids,” Simonson said. “Typically, high schools don’t have programs like ours to have the work skills necessary to work in these labs.”

One other student from the Biotech Academy has applied for a summer internship at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute in Tempe, and Simonson said there is a good chance he will be accepted. Another student is starting this summer in Mesa Community College’s Biotechnology Program. Anthony Garcia, a student in the academy who will go to Tucson in July for the Summer of Excellence program, said his experience in the lab at Mesa High helped him understand the work of UA researchers he met in March. “I knew what they were talking about,” said Garcia, who will be a senior this fall. “It’s like it wasn’t a foreign language to me, kind of like knowing a language but not being fluent in it.” Garcia, 16, said he was interested in going to college at UA, so he jumped at the chance to intern there this summer.

The Biotech Academy opened this past school year and is designed to help students with high standardized test scores, not necessarily stellar grades, develop an interest in science and pursue a college degree, Simonson said. Thirty students, juniors and seniors, enrolled. More than 150 other students at Mesa, Mountain View, Westwood and Dobson high schools also took biotech courses without enrolling in the academy. Students in the academy take their core classes, such as math and English, together and also spend one to two hours a day working in labs. Simonson said they learn about pharmaceuticals, genetics and making solutions used to examine DNA. They also develop research skills through exposure to the same lab equipment used by professional scientists.

Debra Harding’s 17-year-old son, Ryan, began his five-week internship at UA this week. Harding said she’s thrilled her son will have the experience of living on a college campus and researching plant biology on a scholarship worth more than $1,600 for the five-week program. Harding said she spoke to her son in Tucson, and, “he said, ‘Mom, this is going to be hard.’ I said, ‘Welcome to college.'” Ryan, speaking by phone from Tucson this week, said he learned quickly that he was in a professional environment where researchers take their jobs seriously. He’s working with researchers in the BIO5 Institute and Department of Plant Sciences who are experimenting with the DNA of corn by turning off and altering genes. “They’ve made it where the plant will grow purple,” Ryan said. “They’re really cool looking, and the leaves and everything will come out purple.” He’s also enjoying the freedom of college life, although only temporarily, while staying in a dorm on a university campus. He’ll be back in Mesa for his senior year of high school this fall. “It’s really fun,” he said.