On Monday, students from the Columbia Public School District filed into the Monsanto Auditorium in the University of Missouri Bond Life Sciences Center to listen to talks given by a succession of distinguished research professors and scientists. It was the first activity of the Exploring Life Sciences at MU program, a day that allows high school students and their teachers to join in the festivities of the Missouri Life Sciences Week.
Students were able to participate in this week, which celebrates its 30th birthday this year, because of their enrollment in a variety of CACC science classes. All grade levels were represented, as freshmen and seniors alike from all three CPS high schools mingled with researchers during the poster session, where graduate and undergraduate students involved in a variety of scientific fields presented their research projects to the public.
CACC Principles of Biomedical Sciences instructor Karen Hirst said she has been taking kids to this high school symposium for the past 6 years, as it is a great way for high school students to encounter a wide variety of possible careers in the scientific field.
“I think it’s the exposure to the breadth of what scientific research can be about,” Hirst said. “I hope that by taking my students to the Life Sciences Center they become comfortable with campus, they feel comfortable going to lectures there, but also that it broadens their horizons.”
RBHS senior Alex Komes has participated in this program for the past two years, and credits it for giving him another memorable experience as he prepares to bid high school farewell. He also echoed Hirst’s words, and said that the Exploring Life Sciences at MU program gives students an opportunity to investigate the many components that make up scientific fields.
“It lets us explore different outlets of science,” Komes said. “For example, we were looking one [poster] about alligator bite forces, and then the next poster we looked as was about Arabidopsis Thaliana, which is a type of plant, so it just lets us explore multiple things.”
Though Komes, who means to follow a career in the dental field, did not come across any posters related to his intended sphere of study, he said the experience of speaking with graduate students about their research was still extremely valuable.
“A lot of the posters were really interesting to look at, and it gave us high schoolers a way to communicate with people who do different aspects of research in the science field” Komes said.
Despite the fact that this year was Hickman junior Wenzer Qin’s first time being involved with the Missouri Life Sciences Week, she already knows she will continue with it, saying that it is an “amazing opportunity”. Like Komes, Qin plans to study a discipline related to science or medicine later on, but has no specific specialty in mind, which is why she values the chance to speak with researchers coming from a variety of departments.
“It’s good to see what research is being done in different fields,” Qin said. “It might help people figure out what they want to do in the future.”
Qin also cited discussion with graduate and undergraduate students as a major reason why she loves the Missouri Life Sciences Week.
“I’m already pretty excited about science, so this just reinforced that,” Hickman junior Wenzer Qin said. “People who aren’t that much older than us are doing actual research, and that’s pretty cool to see.”
As students like Qin milled around the five floors of the Bond Life Sciences Center, the authors of the posters were more than happy to answer any questions they had. CACC students displayed active involvement and interest with each research project, with the authors, most of whom were graduate students, relating their findings to clusters of attentive teens.
“It’s awesome having these high schoolers here,” 2nd year PhD student Mindy Miller said. “It’s really important for scientists to communicate science effectively to the public, and to get you guys excited about science.”
Miller, who is currently studying the immune systems of newborns, said that she did not have similar opportunities offered when she was in high school, and hopes that this experience can encourage more students to go into careers in science.
“It took me a lot of work to be exposed to this [fields in science] and to learn about it,” Miller said. “But for students like you, who are here and can experience that, maybe it can convince you to do this, and to see the benefits that this program has.”
Similarly, Hirst said students are able to gain important insight from the graduate students that may make an impact in their future paths. She has had previous pupils who participated in the Missouri Life Sciences Week go on to pursue careers in science fields, with some even authoring research posters as University of Missouri students.
“Last year I had three former students presenting [at Life Sciences Week], and this year I had one,” Hirst said. “Some of them are starting grad school in the sciences, so we’ve been going long enough that they’re starting to do their PhDs.”
As the Missouri Life Sciences Week gains more and more exposure among high school students, Hirst said she wants their passion for science to follow a similar upward trend. Though Hirst was limited in the number of students she could bring to the day’s events, due to seating constraints in the auditorium for the lecture portion of the activities, she still hopes that the program can continue to strengthen and develop.
“I don’t know if they would consider making it a multi-day opportunity and have more than one student group come in or not,” Hirst said. “But I hope that next year I see more Columbia Public School students attend the symposium.”