By Leslie Ridgeway
While many high school students were spending their summer working at coffee shops and restaurants or on their tans, a group of more than 20 students from private and public high schools throughout the Los Angeles area dug in to intensive science projects as part of a new program based at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
The Summer High School Advanced Research Program (SHSARP) gave students eight weeks of hands-on experience in several labs, including ophthalmology, cell and neurobiology and preventive medicine at the Keck School, and at the USC School of Pharmacy, USC School of Dentistry, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
Joe Cocozza, assistant professor of Research and Ophthalmology and co-director, Education and Outreach programs for Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems-Engineering Research Center, launched SHSARP, designed for students who are interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). The center is a joint project between the Keck School and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
SHSARP projects included developing computer modeling of a retina to simulate damage due to retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive disease that robs victims of their sight; testing the use of mobile phone software to collect data on physical activity in adolescents; and testing whether a certain drug treatment would have an effect on leukemia cell lines.
According to Cocozza, students far outpaced the expectations of how much they would learn and contribute to research.
“Eight weeks is a short time to get a clear understanding about cutting-edge research,” he said. “Most students think it’s like a detailed book report and don’t understand the skills, knowledge and procedural information needed to do research. These kids could do all that from scratch. It’s a real testament to their aptitude and training.”
Forty-five 11th grade students applied to the program, with the final 22 students selected coming from high schools from Los Angeles and Orange counties. The students were matched with research labs at USC and placed under the mentorship of a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow. According to Cocozza, students directly participated in research, developing skills in laboratory techniques and data collection and analysis. Each student was required to develop and deliver a written and oral report, similar to a professional conference. Cocozza noted how impressed the students’ parents were during the final presentations.
“It was intense,” Cocozza said. “But the students will appreciate it when they get into university.”
The inaugural SHSARP program was launched with one-year funding from a private trust. The program showed so much promise that Cocozza said he is actively seeking funding for next year, and surveying students on what worked and what could be improved for 2014.