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Living The Best Version Of Yourself – Part Two with Stacey Weiss

By Cynthia Blockburger, Lindsey Intern, SARSEF

Haven’t read part one yet? Find it here!

We wanted to know more about Professor Stacey Weiss and her mentorship with STAR Lab. Stacey shares that she is a faculty member at a small liberal arts college and does not have graduate students. All of her research is done in collaboration with undergraduate students and a wonderful lab technician who helps to keep things moving when she is deep into teaching during the academic year. She goes on to state that “STAR Lab students have been a great addition to my research team. I’ve been a STAR Lab mentor for three years now, and each year, students’ projects have built on those before them. In most cases, their projects help validate new methods being developed by my undergraduate students.”

I asked Stacey, in what ways did your participation in field research encourage and foster your curiosity? (i.e., cultural knowledge, background knowledge). She says, “Surrounding yourself in nature and focusing on observing the life around you…it is easy to stay curious! Why are animals doing this or that? How do their eggs survive in those nests with no parental care?” It was clear to me that Stacey is not only passionate about mentoring the “whole” student but also her love for animals in nature and the biomes that they survive and thrive in.

Stacey shares that her current research study is on the behavioral and microbial ecology of a lizard found in southeast Arizona, southwest New Mexico, and down into Mexico – the striped plateau lizard, Sceloporus virgatus. I was initially attracted to these lizards because they represent an “exception to the rule” re: sexually dimorphic ornamentation. In this species, the females are more ornamented than the males. I’ve studied the function and regulation of this ornament, with a focus on sexual selection theory.

Stacey goes on to share a small slice of her fantastic research journey.

About 10 years ago, an anecdotal observation and casual hallway conversation turned me down a path studying the microbial ecology of this lizard. The females lay eggs into soil burrows at the start of the summer monsoon season. They cover over the nest site and leave, providing no further parental care. The eggs stay in the nest for 6-8 weeks, exposed to all sorts of potential soil pathogens with no apparent protection. My colleague, Dr. Mark Martin, suggested that perhaps bacteria from the mother’s cloaca transfer to eggshell during egg-laying and provide antifungal protection. We have now rigorously tested this hypothesis and found support.

With STAR Lab students, I am trying to get a better understanding of the mechanism by which the bacteria ward off fungi. One possibility is that they produce chitinases, which are enzymes that break down chitin. Chitin is a primary component of insect exoskeleton as well as fungal cell walls. Thus, bacterially produced chitinases can help the lizard digest its meals as well as kill the fungi invading its eggs.

Stacey shares so much excitement with her research and mentoring students. One unexpected outcome/quality that she has learned about herself by being a mentor is guiding students through the ups and downs of authentic research experiences has not only honed my problem-solving and communication skills but has also deepened my commitment to supporting their growth, fostering a sense of perseverance that extends beyond the laboratory, and cultivating a positive and empowering learning environment for all students.

So, how does Stacey stay motivated to continue “reaching for the stars?” I’m driven by the research questions and find inspiration in continuous learning. There is never an end in sight to the fascinating questions one can ask about nature! I am driven by the relationships formed with students and the impact of a transformational research experience on their lives. They may not all go on to become research scientists – which is just fine! The skills and confidence that come from engaging in research are generally applicable and can help them in whatever career they opt for. Being part of their journey from uncertainty to confidence brings me immense satisfaction and pride.

My last question for Professor Stacey Weiss ended with a mentoring flare! I asked, what is your superpower mentorship strength? Her response…supporting students!

About SARSEF’s Lindsey Intern, Cynthia Blockburger

Cynthia Blockburger is a highly qualified science teacher and mentor and is currently entering the final phase of her Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Arizona. She is also the Vice President of the College of Education Deans Graduate Advisory Board. In 2022, she was awarded the English Language Arts Title One School’s highest teacher-performer award for the Arizona Academic Standard Assessment. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Science and Mathematics from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo and a Master’s in Education from The University of Arizona. She is a passionate educator with over 19 years of experience working with diverse students in grades K-20, specializing in STEM and English Language Arts. Over the years, Cynthia has developed various robust and diverse science curricula by state and national standards. In doing so, she has extended and fostered positive mentor and mentee relationships with students. As a first-generation graduate student, she has worked in various graduate associate positions, such as with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Under the direction of the University of Arizona Dean Berry and Associate Dean Reyes, Cynthia has provided academic and administrative leadership to support programs in the College of Education, liaised between the college and all campus colleges/divisions, and served crucial roles in research. One of her many goals has been to continue diversifying available programs, such as the AACTE Holmes Scholar Program, to meet the needs of the extended community of learners. She has also worked with Dr. David Moore, Dr. Sara Chavarria, and Dr. Corey Knox to survey the UA campus landscape to identify where field-based or experiential programs could be more inclusive and provide a better student experience from historically marginalized backgrounds. Cynthia’s work supports research and commitment to Equal Opportunity, Diversity, and Inclusion, research findings, and possible solutions for raising awareness among mentors and organizers of field-based research, curricula, and academia. As a first-generation college graduate, she aims to empower students to love obtaining knowledge and develop the joy of striving for academic excellence with a solid foundation for learning.

From A Dream To Reality – Part Two with Andrea Esmeralda Hernandez Pina

By Cynthia Blockburger, Lindsey Intern, SARSEF

Haven’t read part one yet? Find it here!

Our last conversation with Andrea was terrific. Her journey with SARSEF, her work with the University of Arizona, and bridging her hometown community in Nogales with SARSEF deserve highlighting. Andrea’s journey has definitely left us wanting to know “what’s next,” so we asked!

Andrea shared that she attended a conference in her hometown, Nogales, Sonora, and it “was a big success!” How exciting to hear that the joy of science can lead us to reach our community and expand connections across all borders, physically, socially, and, of course, academically.

Andrea told me that she “reached over a hundred middle school students. I had the chance to share my academic trajectory, study tips, and valuable information about the inclusion and role of women in science. I felt the students enjoyed my time with them as much as I did”. Wow, I told you Andrea Esmeralda Hernandez Pina is amazing! Her excitement for spreading knowledge, not just for science but for showing others how to have A Dream To Reality – Finding My Purpose and Loving It!

Reaching for our dreams sometimes needs modeling, and Andrea certainly shows us how. “I reached over a hundred middle school students. I had the chance to share my academic trajectory, study tips, and valuable information about the inclusion and role of women in science. I felt the students enjoyed my time with them as much as I did, and I am sure they took away good motivation”. I can undoubtedly say that my motivation from meeting Andrea has increased. Giving valuable advice to students also seems to help us grow in valuable ways.

How, do you ask? Well, Andrea shared that she “received a certification from the Department of Education in my hometown and built an amazing connection with the authorities of the department and school I attended. I also gave talks at my high school, Rio Rico High School, and to the Rotary Club of Rio Rico”.

Lastly, Andrea says there will be more collaboration between her hometown and former high school. She is “looking forward to more collaboration with both sides of the border to unite our efforts to increase science literacy.” I am confident this is only the beginning of “what’s next” with Andrea Esmeralda Hernandez Pina.

About SARSEF’s Lindsey Intern, Cynthia Blockburger

Cynthia Blockburger is a highly qualified science teacher and mentor and is currently entering the final phase of her Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Arizona. She is also the Vice President of the College of Education Deans Graduate Advisory Board. In 2022, she was awarded the English Language Arts Title One School’s highest teacher-performer award for the Arizona Academic Standard Assessment. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Science and Mathematics from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo and a Master’s in Education from The University of Arizona. She is a passionate educator with over 19 years of experience working with diverse students in grades K-20, specializing in STEM and English Language Arts. Over the years, Cynthia has developed various robust and diverse science curricula by state and national standards. In doing so, she has extended and fostered positive mentor and mentee relationships with students. As a first-generation graduate student, she has worked in various graduate associate positions, such as with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Under the direction of the University of Arizona Dean Berry and Associate Dean Reyes, Cynthia has provided academic and administrative leadership to support programs in the College of Education, liaised between the college and all campus colleges/divisions, and served crucial roles in research. One of her many goals has been to continue diversifying available programs, such as the AACTE Holmes Scholar Program, to meet the needs of the extended community of learners. She has also worked with Dr. David Moore, Dr. Sara Chavarria, and Dr. Corey Knox to survey the UA campus landscape to identify where field-based or experiential programs could be more inclusive and provide a better student experience from historically marginalized backgrounds. Cynthia’s work supports research and commitment to Equal Opportunity, Diversity, and Inclusion, research findings, and possible solutions for raising awareness among mentors and organizers of field-based research, curricula, and academia. As a first-generation college graduate, she aims to empower students to love obtaining knowledge and develop the joy of striving for academic excellence with a solid foundation for learning.

From A Dream To Reality – Finding My Purpose and Loving It! – Andrea Esmeralda Hernandez Pina

By Cynthia Blockburger, Lindsey Intern, SARSEF

Hello, I am Cynthia Blockburger, your Lindsey Intern with SARSEF. In this interview, you will find out how your “dreams can become a reality while finding your purpose and loving it!” Meet Andrea Esmeralda Hernandez, from Nogales, Sonora. Andrea is passionate about being a part of SARSEF and is dedicated to sharing her story and voice. Andrea attended two different high schools. For the first two years, she attended a nursing school in Mexico. She then attended Rio Rico High School in Arizona for her junior and senior years. As early as middle school, Andrea was and still is inquisitive and mesmerized by science. She quickly fell in love with all aspects of Science, Technology, Engineering, and most certainly Math – STEM. Andrea is the first one in her family to attend a university in the US. Today, Andrea considers herself a first-generation college student attending The University of Arizona as a freshman, double majoring in Molecular Sciences and Biochemistry. Like Andrea, I am also a first-generation college student who studied science, and we both know how exciting and challenging this experience can be.

I asked Andrea what her first real science experience was that she knew… This is for me?

I will say that it was back then in eighth grade and ninth grade. I was selected to participate in the science program right in Mexico, where I lived and studied. That program is called the Science Leadership Club for Girls, a program run by the US Consulate in my city. At that time, I wanted to just explore different branches of science, and we had classes with different professors from the US. They went all over the area in my city to teach us about different branches of science, beginning with earth science research.

I remember, particularly, my favorite class in that course. That was actually at a time when I didn’t know for certain what SARSEF was all about. It was the first time that I was in SARSEF. Our activity was a mission to save a lake in Arizona. That lake was contaminated. We had to find a solution to save the lake. So, in order to find the solution, we had to analyze the water. We researched the lake and saw what microorganisms were in the water, and to do it, we used a microscope. That was the first time in my life to see and use a microscope and see microorganisms. So when I put my eyes on the glass of the microscope, I saw those little things moving around the water with their strange shapes and colors. They were crawling and just moving around! I was like, What? I was fascinated. I knew there was a microscopic world, but I didn’t know it was like that.

The microcosms were really weird; they were moving around and were completely different from us. So, that was the first time I used a microscope and saw microorganisms. I remember perfectly that I felt an excitement that I never felt before.

I remember that I wanted to cry that day. I was so excited to see the microscope and microorganisms. I remember asking the program coordinator, Oh my, why…why do I want to cry? I didn’t understand why I felt that way, and then she said that meant that you discovered your vocation. I thought to myself, okay, this is where I should be and what I should do. This must be the field that is for me because I had the privilege that not many people have.

To feel that love for your subject is really so inspirational for other girls. Girls that look like you and look like me! To know and boldly say that you like what you’re doing and to say, “We (girls) really can do this.” Andrea is truly an inspiration for all girls.

What is one of your earlier and exciting experiences in the classroom or field research with science?

I have had an experience with a lab that I started working on when I was moving from junior high school to senior high school, which I am still working with today. Some of the experiments we have done recently are studying a protein that is found inside the fungus that causes valley fever infection. This is one of my favorite experiments because it requires using a green fluorescent to see the protein. Seeing Andrea light up again as she talks about using a microscope also brings a bigger smile to my face. She goes on to say that looking under a special microscope to see where that protein is inside special cells and the outcome has been one of her favorite experiences. Andrea goes on to say that It is very beautiful and fascinating how it works. That “it” would be all things science.

When it comes to your experience with SARSEF and your whole experience throughout science, now that you’re a freshman in college, are you finding a world with more room for you to grow?

I was so upset when I moved to high school in Rio Rico. I didn’t want to move. I was close to my family. I felt like I did not want to be here. I did not want to do anything. It took me a while to understand the idea that in order to fulfill the dreams I have set for myself. This is the path that would give me the opportunities that will let me develop a difference and make a difference. So, it took me a while to understand that, but once I got the idea, I realized there were a bunch of opportunities for me. Thanks to those opportunities, I could see myself as an eligible candidate to go into this field. Now, the University of Arizona programs, the professors, and the community across campus have made me feel welcome. I am motivated to continue buying into myself and more deeply in my field. I have had the privilege to be involved in many activities. Even though I’m just in my freshman semester of college, I’m trying to just seek those opportunities because that’s why I came here.

Tune in for “What’s Next with Andrea Esmeralda Hernandez Pina.” Her path with SARSEF continues. She embodies every girl’s dream. We are loving her journey, “From A Dream To Reality – Finding My Purpose and Loving It!”

Read Part Two Now!

About SARSEF’s Lindsey Intern, Cynthia Blockburger

Cynthia Blockburger is a highly qualified science teacher and mentor and is currently entering the final phase of her Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Arizona. She is also the Vice President of the College of Education Deans Graduate Advisory Board. In 2022, she was awarded the English Language Arts Title One School’s highest teacher-performer award for the Arizona Academic Standard Assessment. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Science and Mathematics from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo and a Master’s in Education from The University of Arizona. She is a passionate educator with over 19 years of experience working with diverse students in grades K-20, specializing in STEM and English Language Arts. Over the years, Cynthia has developed various robust and diverse science curricula by state and national standards. In doing so, she has extended and fostered positive mentor and mentee relationships with students. As a first-generation graduate student, she has worked in various graduate associate positions, such as with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Under the direction of the University of Arizona Dean Berry and Associate Dean Reyes, Cynthia has provided academic and administrative leadership to support programs in the College of Education, liaised between the college and all campus colleges/divisions, and served crucial roles in research. One of her many goals has been to continue diversifying available programs, such as the AACTE Holmes Scholar Program, to meet the needs of the extended community of learners. She has also worked with Dr. David Moore, Dr. Sara Chavarria, and Dr. Corey Knox to survey the UA campus landscape to identify where field-based or experiential programs could be more inclusive and provide a better student experience from historically marginalized backgrounds. Cynthia’s work supports research and commitment to Equal Opportunity, Diversity, and Inclusion, research findings, and possible solutions for raising awareness among mentors and organizers of field-based research, curricula, and academia. As a first-generation college graduate, she aims to empower students to love obtaining knowledge and develop the joy of striving for academic excellence with a solid foundation for learning.

From Flying Paper Airplanes to Satellites Over the Horizons

Imagine the impact you can have on the world with indefinite curiosity. Meet Jeremiah Pate, SARSEF alumnus and board member, recipient of Forbes 30 under 30, and founder of Lunasonde. Developing a passion for STEM at a very young age, Jeremiah found himself participating in science fairs since the first grade. His research focused on the physics of cloud formation to determining which molecule could treat and reverse Parkinson’s disease to support an immediate medical need of a family friend.

Jeremiah’s journey with SARSEF began early, creating a project out of paper airplane designs in first grade to see which one would fly the furthest. He entered the science fair every year, but it wasn’t until high school where his passion for science took off.

Every year, Jeremiah Pate’s research projects were in a different category, but were equally important to global needs. In high school, Pate’s SARSEF research projects led him to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) every year, shaping his passion for research. His final project applied to support the immediate medical need of a family friend. He watched the devastating impact the disease had as they went through their silent struggle and made a promise to their families that he would dedicate his final SARSEF science fair project to research in Parkinson’s disease. The determination and outcome was successfully achieved in a Drosophila model .

To the right is Jeremiah Pate at ISEF. He won a total of $8,000 in cash prizes, was awarded the opportunity to attend the Nobel Prize festivities and the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar (SIYSS), and an offer of a four-year University of Arizona Scholarship worth $40,000.

Today, Jeremiah Pate is working towards making the underground world visible, fundamentally transforming our understanding of the planet we live on. This technology will revolutionize the way we find resources such as water, minerals, and geothermal energy. We had the opportunity to interview Jeremiah Pate and learn more about his experience with SARSEF and STEM journey.

What was your relationship to science growing up?

I was always infinitely curious about the world and the intricacy of its components; science allowed an invaluable lens to view everything from tiny molecules to the beauty the promise of space. My family encouraged science outreach participation and research that allowed my relationship with STEM to grow.

How did your interest in science develop?

Throughout my lifetime, I remember reading about the great scientists of the past; each strived to push the boundaries of the known. I wanted to be just like them, and life experiences increased my desire to follow. Watching the space shuttle launch sparked my interest in space; I was only two at the time. SARSEF gave me an avenue take an idea every year and turn it into a viable scientific solution.

What was the first project you presented at the SARSEF Fair?

I started participating in science fairs during first grade. The Pima Air and Space Museum was a common weekend destination; so, my first presentation dealt with aerodynamics. The project researched the types of paper airplane designs and the backyard experimentation to prove which design would fly furthest. 

Can you talk more about the research you completed in high school?

The projects completed in high school ironically lead to other experience in my life. Every one of these SARSEF/ISEF projects were in a different category, but was equally important to global needs. My first-year project highlighted research about the physics of cloud formation; this research would later qualify me to participate in an international project to map noctilucent clouds.  The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was the basis of my second project’s research; AMELIA was an aircraft system acting as avionics black box on the cloud. During my junior year in high school, I researched and created an optical encryption system. My fourth and final SARSEF/ISEF project was my favorite, as it applied to an immediate medical need of a family friend. This project focused on determining which molecule could treat and reverse Parkinson’s disease; this determination/outcome was successfully achieved a in a Drosophila model.

What was it like being a Finalist at ISEF?

Participation in ISEF was one of the most memorable experiences of my life; each of the four years shaped my passion for research. I consider participation in ISEF as my first introduction to the global scientific community. It was remarkable to meet like-minded young scientists from all around the world and to witness the incredible research each conducted at the dawn of their careers. To be a member of these alumni is an extreme honor.

How did you choose your career?

As previously mentioned, my fascination with space exploration began at age two. At that time, I had no clue about physics or science; however, watching the launch of the space shuttle engrained that space research would be a big part of my life.  Hypothesizing about the options space holds and applied solutions to push the boundaries of the known opened many doors to entrepreneurship.

Talk a little bit about your current work.

I am the founder and CEO of Lunasonde, which is working towards taking an MRI scan of planet Earth. Our team designs/creates satellites that collect data deep beneath the Earth’s surface. This technology will revolutionize the way we find resources such as water, minerals, and geothermal energy.

Can you walk me through a typical day for you as a startup founder?                                          

The one thing that a founder must remember is to be adaptable; so, each day is quite different.  A startup is much like a team, so accessibility throughout the entire week to problem solve is very important. My typical CEO days may begin speaking with potential investors or participating in employee-related meetings. Over the past year, the company participated in quite a few accelerators, which are primarily through ZOOM; each requires the application of organization and communication. We are currently working on new technology that requires testing and many late hours.  Startup founders are responsible for both operational and financial interactive strategies. We have increased our phenomenal team based out of Tucson, and now have a presence in Washington DC; so networking and continual communication are evolving. We have special projects in the works and another launch in May of next year. So, typical is not yet in our vocabulary right now.

What advice do you have for students currently considering a career in science?

Science is the key that unlocks everything in life. A career in science is extremely rewarding; however, I would recommend choosing a STEM path that is of interest. A science career that that sparks creativity and excitement takes an interest and morphs it into a life-long career.

What do you do for fun?

I earned my private pilot’s license as a teenager and have enjoyed flying sailplanes ever since. Although spare time is at a minimum right now, I enjoy practicing/participating Krav Maga in my free time.

Thank you Jeremiah Pate for your interview, insight, and knowledge you bring to the world of science!

If you would like to know more about SARSEF and how you can become engaged in STEM, volunteer for our organization, or donate, visit us at (https://sarsef.org/)

From SARSEF to Next Generation Solutions, Global Issues in Healthcare, and Climate Change

Meet Dr. Ahmed Badran, born in Germany, having lived in Egypt and moving to Tucson, Arizona, Dr. Badran was an incredibly gifted STEM student and excellent swimmer at Tucson High Magnet School (THMS). Knowing what a pipette and centrifuge was at 10 or 11 years old, Dr. Badran was exposed to a very diverse set of science and knew the hallmarks of molecular biology at a very young age.

His journey with SARSEF began when he was selected to represent Southern Arizona at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Indianapolis, Indiana in 2006. Ahmed was bright beyond his years and was generous and humble in sharing his insights and knowledge of biology and chemistry with his teacher, Dr. Margaret Wilch, SARSEF’s Director of Research, and his classmates.

As a THMS student, Dr. Badran worked in the lab of Professor Indraneel (Neel) Ghosh, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Arizona. Upon graduating high school, he attended the University of Arizona where he continued his research in Dr. Ghosh’s lab until he graduated. Dr. Badran was awarded the prestigious Beckman Scholar award in 2008 as well as the top award as an undergraduate. He earned numerous other awards throughout his undergraduate and graduate school career.

Dr. Badran earned his B.Sc. in Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics and Molecular & Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. Subsequently, he earned his Ph.D. in Chemical Biology from Harvard University under the guidance of Prof. David R. Liu, leading the development and application of rapid methods for continuous directed evolution. Following that, he is a Principal Investigator and Fellow of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard where his lab is developing new technologies to reprogram protein translation. To learn more about Dr. Ahmed Badran’s lab at the Scripps Research Institute, click here.

To the right is Dr. Badrans team from the Badran Lab, located at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. They combine principles of chemical biology, bioengineering, directed evolution, genome editing and synthetic biology to (re)engineer highly integrated cellular signaling networks towards researcher-defined function. The Badran Lab is currently supported by the Scripps Research Institute, NIH Director’’s Early Independence Award, NASA, DTRA, and NIBIB.

Dr. Ahmed Badran was an incredible, bright, and humble student, who is now addressing issues of immediate global impact, namely antimicrobial development, biologics production, information maintenance and transmission, and climate change. We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Badran and learn more about his experience with SARSEF and STEM journey.

What was your relationship to science growing up?

I began interacting with science at a young age. My parents, both of whom are scientists, had a deep respect for their work and what science could teach us about the world around us. They instilled that passion in me from a young age: they spoke with pride about how they contributed to the sum of human knowledge, and discoveries that they made every day. Unsurprisingly, I wanted to be a pioneer like them, so I followed in their footsteps and became a scientist.

How did your interest in science develop?

I’ve always found science interesting. But some of my earliest fascinations came from astronomy. It was exciting to me that researchers could point telescopes up into the sky, watch how the stars and celestial bodies moved, and predict how they would behave years in the future with great accuracy. I remember first learning about the Pillars of Creation, a dense concentration of gas and dust more than 6000 light years away. The image was breathtaking. But I later learned that it no longer existed: since light from this formation takes over 6000 years to arrive to Earth, the gas and dust probably dissipated long ago. This duality of beauty and impermanence was key to my fascination with science.

What was the first project you presented at the SARSEF Fair?

My work at the SARSEF Fair was done in the Ghosh lab at the University of Arizona. It focused on creating sensors to quickly and accurately monitor how proteins interact with one another. My approach relied on using fluorescent proteins, which can be made in living cells and quantified easily. These sensors could detect so-called protein-protein interactions and in doing so would change the fluorescent output of the system. By measuring this change, I could quantify the of the protein-protein interaction.

Can you talk more about the research you completed in high school?

My work during SARSEF got me excited about making sensors for other biological activities. Just as proteins interact with one another, they can also interact with blueprints of information in cells: DNA and RNA. I became interested in using proteins that naturally bind to specific DNA and RNA sequence, but instead using them to report of new or engineered sequences. This technique could then be applied to detect mutations in DNA or RNA, or even quantify damage that would happen in different environments or disease states.

What was it like being a Finalist at ISEF?

Being an ISEF Finalist was one of the most pivotal moments of my career. While at ISEF, I interacted with students from all over the country and the world, all of whom were engaged in research as high school students. But the most exciting element of ISEF was the diversity of science: mathematicians, chemists, biologists, physicists. And some students were even bridging gaps between fields to create hybrid fields. I was struck by the quality of all of their work and thrilled to interact with peers who valued and enjoyed science as much as I did.

How did you choose your career?

After SARSEF and ISEF, I was admitted to the University of Arizona as a biochemistry major, and continued my trajectory in studying proteins. Their diverse shapes and functions fascinated me. The more I learned about these molecular machines which are the workhorses of the cell, the more I began to think about modifying their functions or combing two or more existing activities into a single protein. So as an undergraduate, I explored different types of proteins and started to combine them in unique ways to create activities that may not exist in Nature. This field is called bioengineering, and the field with which I now most closely associate.

Talk a little bit about your current work.

My work now has changed quite a bit. My lab is interested in the most fundamental biological process that gives rise to proteins in cells: translation. This process is orchestrated by Nature’s most essential and complex machine, the ribosome. This machine decodes the patterns of bases in RNA to give rise of tens of thousands of unique proteins in our cells every day. But how exactly does it do this? And why does it translate the genetic code in the way that it does? If we can answer these questions, not only do we learn much about how natural biological systems achieve this important activity, but we can go a step further to create technologies to make artificial proteins with new activities. These could be useful to help us sense and respond to disease states, or perhaps even solve critical problems like climate change. My lab is excited about all of these topics, and we are actively working to address many of these important questions. 

Can you walk me through a typical day for you as an assistant professor?

As an assistant professor, most of my time is spent on the bench next to my students and postdocs. We plan and carry out experiment every day together. Beyond that, I spend a few hours every day working on manuscripts or grant applications, both of which are critical to academic science. Manuscripts are the way by which we share our findings with the world, and tell them about the exciting innovations we’ve made. Grants, on the other hand, are laboratory funds that are graciously given to us by our funding agencies to support our work.

What advice do you have for students currently considering a career in science?

There are many different types of science out there, and it can be difficult to know which one is the right one for you. Explore different avenues until you find something that you really enjoy. It may take longer to find, but it’s a much more worthwhile investment than doing something you don’t enjoy.

What do you do for fun?

When I’m not doing science or mentoring students, I like to play a lot of sports outdoors like soccer and swimming. I’ve also recently started hiking and got into amateur astronomy.

Thank you Dr. Ahmed Bedran for your interview, insight, and knowledge you bring to the world of science! Motivated by passion and curiosity, your research has truly made a difference in addressing issues of immediate global impact for a better tomorrow.

If you would like to know more about SARSEF and how you can become engaged in STEM, volunteer for our organization, or donate, visit us at (https://sarsef.org/)

Meet Past SARSEF Student and the Impact of her STEM Education Journey

Written by Lauren Conger

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(Tucson, AZ) During my first year of college, I received advice from my physics instructors that changed the way I viewed my ability to learn. They impressed upon us the idea that your brain is like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Applying this attitude in my college education made me realize that asking questions didn’t mean I was behind; it meant I was growing. Taking extra time to work though homework solutions didn’t mean I was not smart; it meant I was giving my brain a workout. Most importantly, as I saw my own ability in mathematics and physics becoming stronger, I realized it equalized the playing field for students with varying math and science backgrounds, since each student’s ability to improve their critical thinking relied primarily on their efforts to spend time practicing that critical thinking.

I recall participating in SARSEF as a 5th grader in 2008. After I designed and executed my experiment with my sister, writing the report and making a poster board presented a daunting task. What does it mean to write a summary of my question, experiment, and results in an abstract? What exactly is the difference between the results and conclusion section? This type of thinking was difficult and challenging. At the time I preferred activities that involved rote memorization, because I knew exactly how to proceed. This exercise differed from classwork in that it required more creativity and critical thinking skills; this challenged me to grow intellectually.

Fortunately, I participated in SARSEF again as an 8th grader as a part of a school requirement. As a high school senior, I worked on a math project for fun and later decided to submit my work to SARSEF. I felt much more comfortable and familiar with the process because of my experience in 5th and 8th grade. The awards from SARSEF and local organizations told me that my engagement in STEM is valued by the community, more than just being something that I enjoy.

This year I volunteered as a SARSEF judge for the first time. The students had outstanding projects and demonstrated such high levels of understanding and critical thinking. During the award deliberations, the other judges drew out and discussed the best qualities from each student’s project. Seeing these STEM professionals eagerly discussing various aspects of the projects was itself inspiring. 

As a grad student, I am currently working on my first first-author academic journal paper. As I decide what to write in each section, the challenge feels about the same as how I felt in 5th grade, deciding what goes in my results versus conclusion. However, my experience with these feelings of challenge and unfamiliarity indicates that if I work to improve my skills, incorporate feedback from experts in the field, and continue to practice scientific writing, I will improve to a level far beyond competency. Let the research continue!

Lauren Conger is a PhD student at the California Institute of Technology, studying control and dynamical systems in the computing and mathematical sciences department. She has a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering from Cornell University and graduated from Salpointe Catholic High School in 2015.

Do you have a child in your life who shares a deep curiosity in STEM? Be their champion! Would you consider giving your time and resources to help non-profit organizations like SARSEF (https://sarsef.org/). Your engagement could profoundly impact someone’s life and help shape a great future for humanity.

Lauren Conger – PhD Student, California Institute of Technology

If you would like to know more about SARSEF and how you can get engaged in STEM or involved with our organization, visit us at (https://sarsef.org/)

SARSEF Alumni of the Month- Jeremiah Pate

Seeing the Bigger Picture, Jeremiah Pate

Jeremiah Pate started with SARSEF early, creating a project out of paper airplane designs in first grade to see which one would fly the furthest. He entered every year, but neither science nor the fair really took hold of him until high school when he was selected to go to ISEF for the first time. “When I won that award, I had no clue what I had just won, and I turned to the guy next to me who’d been there before and asked ‘we’re actually going to LA?’ Before that it was a hobby, but ISEF defined my high school years.”

Not that he was rewarded at school for his dedication to his science fair projects. Neither elementary, middle nor high school provided Jeremiah with help on his projects, and he was actually discouraged from participating in high school because of the fear that it would take time away from tests. “The only support I got was from SARSEF and the web of contact from SARSEF- never from the schools. SARSEF is really the only thing that added an experiential component – that allowed me to develop and to be an innovator. I knew I wanted to be in science and STEM, but before I was a cog in the machine – I never would have had that spark to change the world – that’s what SARSEF gave me. That exigency. There are big problems in the world, but you can solve those through science.”

Jeremiah credits his experience with SARSEF and ISEF with giving him that vision. “I went to ISEF four times during high school. When I wasn’t there, I was preparing for it, and it had a massive role in my trajectory and career because I saw not just science for science sake, but science to solve really big problems. I saw that science is defined not by the problems we have, but the problems we choose, and there are no problems too big. I thought the big problems in society were for the important people to solve – ISEF taught me differently.”

Jeremiah’s science fair projects involved Parkinson’s research, and he says the only reason he stopped is that he doesn’t have the computing power to continue. “Going to college I continued my Parkinson’s research that I started for ISEF, and I’m still working on it, but I started my company, which was inspired by my work at ISEF.” Unlike most approaches to the disease that keep looking smaller, molecule by molecule, Jeremiah designed a molecule “about 1000 times larger and more complicated than those small molecules. I’m waiting until I have the computer and financial resources to go to the next phase in my research.” Until then, he’s taking the same larger perspective and applying it to finding and understanding underground resources. “I use satellites to look for water, minerals, and energy. Traditionally satellites look at the surface, but these look at the planet in 3D – we take an MRI of the planet earth – take old-school industries like mining and water management into the Internet age. We want to digitize that data and make it available in an Internet type fashion.”

Whether he finds new sources of water, or new ways to combat Parkinson’s, Jeremiah insists the source of his passionate curiosity for applying a larger perspective will always be his SARSEF experience. “I can’t overstate this: SARSEF is an incredible organization and it’s had a huge impact on my life. I might have been a scientist or engineer before, but wanting to change the world I owe to SARSEF.”

-Story by Julie Morrisson, Photo Courtesy of SSP 

SARSEF Alumni of the Month- Lyda Harris

Finding Community, Lyda Harris

By Julie Morrison

Lyda Harris learned early that she was most successful with science when she related it to where she lived. “My first science fair was in fifth grade and I didn’t even make it to SARSEF, but  in sixth grade I did a project on mosquito larvae and different outdoor containers because we have such a problem with yellow fever in Tucson, and that’s when I realized maybe I could do science – maybe I was good at it.” Lyda had seen lots of science already, as her mother is a wildlife biologist, but she didn’t know if she wanted to pursue science herself until she went to ISEF as an observer in eighth grade. “I did a project on groundwater and grey water – also very Tucson oriented,” made it to SARSEF, placed first, went as an observer to ISEF “and that really changed things when I saw all these kids with really great questions. So, I decided this is what I want to do.” Lyda attended a high school that didn’t require science fair projects, but she kept doing SARSEF on her own all four years. She even convinced her school district to become dual enrolled in two high schools so she could take a research methods course and get some mentoring on her SARSEF projects. “I spent junior and senior year going back and forth between the two high schools, and my senior year I did very well, and got scholarship funds for college, even if I didn’t make it to ISEF.”

 

Lyda credits SARSEF with helping her find not only her kind of people, but also her kind of fun and her kind of science. “I loved SARSEF so much, and my high school was a great school – everyone there was a giant nerd and pretty happy with that as an identifier — but I was the kid who wanted to do more. I’d stay up late analyzing numbers and figuring out a way to present them in a way that the public could understand. My fun time was late at night laminating stuff for my board – it was a big deal to drive myself to Kinko’s when I turned 16.” And yet, she wasn’t alone. All the SARSEF students she met “had a glint in their eye as if to say ‘I can change the world.’” Additionally, in studying micro-plastics in zooplankton, Lyda found a passion for marine biology and learned how to do research. Those skill sets got her research opportunities in college, such as field research in marine biology in Washington State while she was an undergrad in Chicago. Now, Lyda is a PHD student at University of Washington “doing research on the effects of microplastics on marine organisms – specifically mussels. But I would never have known about that field if it weren’t for SARSEF.”

 

Lyda says SARSEF taught her that, just like a science fair, actual science is going to be most meaningful when it gets the community involved. “Having been in graduate school, I’ve run into people who made it to ISEF, but I’ve not run into anyone who shares the same kind of passion that kids from Tucson do about SARSEF. I haven’t found anyone who has that special feeling about another state science fair – they have the feeling about ISEF but not about the local level.” This feeling resonates with Lyda because she sees with her current research that “to do anything in science we have to do things at a local level, and to get people to understand, you have to relate the science to them and what they’re experiencing on a day to day basis. SARSEF does such a great job getting the local people involved. I competed for a while, then I was a judge, and I met PhD students from University of Arizona, along with people from local industries, and it was really nice to see the community brought together.” Lyda wants to see the same kind of community gather around local issues, feeling that science will be most meaningful if it inspires people to take local action to improve the problems being researched. “I loved doing something with a result that I shared with people and that would help us understand the world. Even as a PhD student presenting my research, I get the same feeling now that I did at SARSEF.”

Photo Credit: UW Science Positive

Alumni Flashback!

SARSEF sets annual goals. We increase results and impact each year. And while reaching thousands more students across Arizona is essential to our mission, we are prouder still that we reached our less publicized goal: “Change the life of one child.”

The following was recently sent by an alumnus of SARSEF. Compare to a letter he sent when he was in high school…

“Since SARSEF, I attended Stanford University where I initially studied a combination of neuroscience and computer science. This was a result of the influence of the research I did in high school and the project I worked on for SARSEF. I graduated from Stanford in 2017 and got my degree in computer science with a concentration in artificial intelligence. I was accepted into the Master’s program at Stanford in 2016 and am currently working on that degree. However, after graduating with my undergrad I took a year leave of absence to run professionally. I thank SARSEF for this. Now I want to volunteer so I can give back.” Ryan Silva

 

Here is what he said back in the 2013-14 school year as Senior:

“This year was really the first time I understood the value of independent research and started doing some of my own. I competed at SARSEF in middle school, but that was nothing compared to my senior year project. I can say that SARSEF was one of the best learning experiences I have had. I feel like I matured so much from the constant activities and schedule planning to getting to know other researchers, preparing a presentable speech and acting professional in front of the experts in their field. This really gave me a new understanding of how worldly we need to be when implementing ideas that will change the future, because the US is only a portion of that future.

Looking back on the experience, I cannot believe how much I learned and did. All in all, I feel very grateful for SARSEF and that there is a community in Tucson who supports this great organization”

Ryan Silva