The KEYS To A Great Summer

Want to pursue an interest in science and research or simply wish to have an academically invigorating summer experience? That was the question asked when Arizona high school students found out about a summer program called KEYS from their science classes. But, what really is KEYS?

KEYS stands for “Keep Engaging Youth in Science” and is a seven week internship program that is designed to offer amazing opportunities in science-related fields for motivated high schoolers. This incredible opportunity allows for students finishing their junior year of high school to first get acquainted with basic lab materials and the rigor of lab work, and then assigns students to various mentors and researchers on the University of Arizona campus to assist on a project related to engineering, public health, environmental health, or biostatistics.

There are hundreds of high school students from around the state of Arizona who apply for the opportunity to be a part of this prestigious program, and after reviewing their application and conducting an interview, only 42 high schoolers are chosen to be involved. Each person chosen to be a part of the program comes from a different background, but everyone has a common interest: their love of science and interest in research.

Recently, I sat down with seven University High school seniors who were hand-selected to participate in this intensive research program and asked them about their experience. The students selected to be a part of KEYS this past summer were Lilly Clark, Ting Ting Thompson, Mara Harwin, Eric Petronella, Sophia Lewandroski, Christopher Lehman, and Kristen Alicea-Jorgensen.

I asked a few of the interns how they became interested in participating in KEYS:

Question: “What are things you enjoy doing that got you interested in KEYS?

Kristen: ”My dad’s a doctor, so biology was always one of the subjects I had to do well in. I remember [in] fourth grade, him sitting me down before every biology test, making sure I knew the material. So, it’s always been one of my better subjects. It looked like a cool program to participate in, because I was interested in biology, but I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to do research or if I wanted to do something more like my dad, doctor-wise, so I figured this would kind of be the leighway to: ‘yes, I want do research’ or ‘no, I don’t’.”

Chris: “I wanted to do it to see if I wanted to do research. I mean, I felt like research was something I was interested in and I kind of wanted to go give it a shot, and I like biology and chemistry and … that lab type setting, which is was kind of led me to apply.”

The University High School students found out about this summer experience at the University of Arizona through the internet, by looking at past research, and from a presentation given by the UHS physics teachers (Ms. Tautz, Mr. Schmidt, and Ms. Volkening) during their junior year.

Sophia explained it well when describing her interest in KEYS, saying, “The idea of being able to have the whole summer’s worth of experience in a lab and then being able to have a concrete poster to show that work, was kind of like–oh yeah, I definitely want to do that.”

Most of the summer consists of working in a lab with your supervisor, but “Hell Week” (KEYS slang for the first week of the program) is different, as the kids spend five days getting used to normal lab instruments and lab work and learning the basics.

Question: Can you tell me about this first week or “hell week”?”

Kristen: “Oh my god. Okay, it is 45 hours in total, which is, essentially, … from 8 o’clock in the morning till 5 o’clock at night, and they basically throw you in a lab situation with all of the other interns and you learn how to handle equipment like the centrifuge, pipettes … It was really intimidating because a lot of the others kids in the program had always loved science so [they] had already taken AP Bio and other lab courses, so they knew how to already handle the stuff. And then the other half of  the day was just sort of ice breaking. I think, just after that week everyone was really tired but we had all learned a lot.”

Question: “So it was a good experience to start off with?”

Kristen: “Yeah, it was a really good thing to start off with, especially since I didn’t think I’d do a lot of stuff in that lab, but I ended up doing it.”

The projects assigned to the KEYS interns ranged from HIV-related cancer research, to working with explosives, to an exploration into cellular quiescence (defined as the state of reversible cell cycle arrest). Most people had set projects they worked on for the full six weeks, but some, like Kristen Alicea-Jorgensen, were assigned to help a graduate with their co-op until she was able to help out with her final project in the last three weeks. Some projects that were assigned to the interns were based on their initial interests: Sophia was able to work with cancer research that followed her interest in genetics, Kristen was assigned to a mosquito lab with her interest already being mosquito-infectious diseases since most of her family had come from Puerto Rico, a tropical area that was prone to these types of diseases, and Eric had always been interested in chemical engineering which he was able to learn more about through his project relating to bacteria in chemical explosives. Most of the other interns were assigned to labs they had no previous knowledge about, but learned more about throughout the program, and that helped shape their views coming out of KEYS at the end of the summer.

Lab mentors or PI’s (Principal Investigators) were the people who supervised the students, watching them work and guiding them to make sure they were doing procedures correctly, and PI’s were private investigators that acted as mentors as well. They were extremely helpful to the students, and some formed bonds with their interns. Mara spoke about how her PI invited the whole lab to go on a tour of a Mormon temple which was super interesting and something different she didn’t expect, which gave her an opportunity to get to know her PI/mentor and lab group better. Ting Ting said her lab group invited her to go salt river tubing with them and was surprised at how scientists actually had lives outside of their labs. She said, “I thought scientists would be all nerdy and like not do anything, I didn’t think they had lives outside the lab, but my person was in a sorority, she went on California trips, she had a lot of fun. They’re all so smart but get to have fun, so it’s like, oh, you don’t have to choose between one or the other, which was cool to see.”

Besides just working on your own project, you were able to interact with other KEYS interns and make new connections at the U of A that couldn’t be found otherwise. Eric tells me that  bonding with two other UHS students, Sophia and Lilly, who were both in his group, helped get him through tough spots, especially the first week. As a group, the interns would go get food (Sophia talked about eating Thai food while Eric raved about the Syrian food his labmates would get him), and do socials, getting to know each other better, which was a lot of fun and rewarding for people who were looking to make new friends from this experience.

Lilly: “I definitely feel like I have more connections at the U of A now, and just, like, around Tucson with the other KEYS students. You wouldn’t expect it but you get really close with the other students in KEYS because they make you play a million icebreakers every day.”

Some permanent friendships were made in KEYS as well, with Mara telling me,“I made some really good friends and they live in Nogales, and I still like Snapchat them every day.”

At the end of the seven weeks, the KEYS students put on a showcase where they presented their work to their family, friends, and mentors. In answering my question about her favorite moment from KEYS, Sophia tells me about her presentation at the end of the program:

“My lab mentor was tall, quiet and didn’t give much direction. In the end, it was really satisfying when, like, he, he’s not a person to give praise, and then when he came to the showcase, it kind of just showed how much work and how much effort we had both put into my project, when he, like, came up to my poster and was like, “This looks good”, like, “Good job’”–Me: “So that was your favorite moment, feeling accomplished.”–Sophia: “Yeah because it’s kind of that sense of accomplishment and, I mean, the poster session is, like, amazing with all 48 interns, all talking about their work and you can’t believe how much everyone has learned over the summer about what they were doing.”

It wasn’t all serious work though. In our interview, I asked Chris, Mara, and Ting Ting about any quirky or fun moments they had during KEYS, and they all smiled and giggled as Ting Ting spoke about the buttons of certain machines like a hemocytometer (used to count cells). Lilly recounted a story about planning with her labmates to give a lizard an ultrasound.

Going into KEYS, all of the interns from UHS agreed that it was important to keep an open mind, to be prepared to make new friends, and to be ready to learn. They also mentioned that coming out of KEYS gave them a better idea of what they wanted to do in the future. Most of them are continuing to check-in at their labs throughout the school year, with some of them even working on new projects.

Question: If you were to tell a junior who is considering to apply to KEYS, about the KEYS program, what would you say?

Chris: “I’d tell them: apply. Even if you’re just considering it a little bit, I’d say apply just because it’s such a general experience, and you get so many different experiences just from meeting new people, hearing the different speakers, and then just the setting of being immersed in a lab. You have such a variety of skills you learn throughout the whole thing that it’s going to benefit you no matter what. If you have the interest and the passion for research, and it seems like something cool to you then I would recommend applying because it will be.”

“I learned that I am actually capable of being thrown into somewhere where I know nothing and eventually understanding what I’m doing through using your hands more than actually reading. Like reading’s important, but it’d take me forever to understand the stuff that I was doing; except when you’re hands-on doing it, it’s easier to comprehend all the concepts. The responsibility was hard at first; you never really had to create your own procedures during school labs, like they know what you want to get accomplished, but [in KEYS] I didn’t actually expect they’d make me research stuff so that I could build my own procedures sometimes, which scared me a lot, but when they were like, “Oh that looks good”, it was the best feeling.” -Ting Ting Thompson

“[My project] helped me narrow down the parts of [research] that I liked and the parts that I didn’t, and I found that a lot of things that I liked, were a lot of the analytical things, looking at the math or physics of some things.” -Chris Lehman

“The great thing about KEYS is that it pushes you outside of your comfort zone, there’s a lot of independence in it, you have to be prepared to, I guess, take on your own role in your lab and in your research and kind of decide where it’s going to go because your lab–I mean it depends on your lab–but your lab will most likely give you an idea of the project you want to do and [the mentors] will kind of just let you go off with it or they’ll give you a specific project but then it’s still up to you to bring it to completion… It kind of sets you apart because you are able to be in a professional workplace at such a young age and be proficient.” -Sophia Lewandroski


“Learning patience with research, I think is one of the biggest things I learned, over the program. I think a lot of people think, at a glance, that research is cool and it’s innovating but it’s a lot of tiny steps leading to a bigger discovery that takes years to complete.” -Kristen Alicea-Jorgensen



“[There is] an incredible amount of variety in the labs you can do; like, you might not think, ‘oh I want to do scientific research’ if you’re into computer programming or communicating with people writing grants, but people do that in laboratories so I think there’s just a lot of variety I wasn’t
aware of.” -Lilly Clark

“I have always been interested in engineering and chemical engineering as a possible career path for me, and I think this was very helpful as I got to see what a career could look like if I decided to pursue chemical engineering… It was helpful that I was able to see more of that career path before college.” -Eric Petronella

“I saw myself doing laboratory research, so I’m not interested in the specific research my lab was doing, but I’m glad that I did it anyway, because it gave me the experience of doing research and it kinda taught me what like I don’t want to do which is nice to know, but now it allows me to see what I do want to do to, like work in labs and see what kind of lab that I am thinking of. So, I am definitely into research, and [KEYS] made me want to be a neurologist or something.” -Mara Harwin

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