Stimulating interest in STEM statewide
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Aparna Ajjarapu wants to improve food safety.
That’s why this young scholar is researching how to find an effective way to reduce the transmission of a strain of E. coli from animals to humans—especially since it ranks fourth among the agents causing gastrointestinal illnesses in North America.
“Many people take food safety for granted, and I feel that food safety is a very important issue to work on,” says Ajjarapu, a 17-year-old senior at Ames High School.
Ajjarapu is one of more than 150 top science and math students from across the state participating in the 2014 Iowa Regional Junior Science and Humanities Symposium Thursday and Friday, Feb. 27 and 28, on the University of Iowa campus.
She’s also one of 15 students selected to present original research before a panel of judges during the symposium.
The event, hosted by the UI College of Education’s Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, is designed to stimulate interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)-related research and careers while students are in high school. The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force fund the program.
“Student projects examine diverse STEM topics not typically explored in depth during a traditional high school course,” says Leslie Flynn, UI science education faculty member who is also part of the Belin-Blank Center STEM Initiative team.
She adds, “These young researchers have a passion for not only understanding their chosen topic but advancing the field to help solve grand challenges Iowa and our nation face such as healthcare, energy, technology, national defense, and the environment.”
Flynn says that many of these students develop their research projects across multiple years. However, some may formulate a paper after just one intensive summer research experience with a STEM mentor followed by a semester of school-based research with their teacher.
In Ajjarapu’s case, she was selected as a Wallace-Carver intern with the World Food Prize Foundation last summer while stationed at the USDA National Animal Disease Center (NADC) in Ames. Her supervisor was Dr. Indira Kudva from the Food Safety and Enteric Pathogens Unit at NADC, where she continues to work as a student researcher.
From that experience, she pursued a research project that evolved into the paper she will present at the symposium, “Isolation of Escherichia coli O157 proteins that interact with the Bovine recto-anal junction squamous epithelial (RSE) cells.”
In addition to hearing the young scholars sharing their research, all of the students will have the opportunity to take several STEM activity lab tours, organized by different UI departments, colleges, and units across the UI campus including biology, chemistry, hydroscience and engineering, the UI Natural History Museum, nursing, physics, UI Health Care, pharmacy, computer science, and psychology.
They will also hear distinguished keynote speakers including Don Gurnett in physics and astronomy on Feb. 27 and Karim Abdel-Malek, in engineering, on Feb. 28.
The top five place finishers will attend an all-expense paid trip to Washington D.C. where Iowa’s top two place finishers compete at the national finals.
Teacher mentors critical to STEM success
The role of high school math and science teachers—as well as professors, researchers, and professionals working in STEM fields is vital, Flynn says. Many of the teacher mentors will accompany the students to the symposium.
“My most powerful mentor is my science teacher, DeAnna Tibben,” Ajjarapu says. “She encouraged me to apply concepts outside of the classroom, and that’s really what sparked my creative thinking process.”
Ajjarapu hopes to pursue a career in medicine or another STEM field. She adds she is seriously considering the UI as an option, and the visit to campus will allow her to get an even better feel for the UI’s scholarly climate.
"I definitely want to continue doing research in college, and the UI has great research opportunities and facilities,” Ajjarapu says.
She adds that STEM education is extremely important.
UI science education faculty member
“Many students are often intimidated by math and science,” Ajjarapu says. “I have been really fortunate to go to a school that has a really good science and math program, but some schools do not have these strong STEM programs.”
Expanding the frontiers of knowledge
Susan Assouline, UI Belin-Blank Center director, says there are daily reminders of the role of STEM in our future—locally, statewide, nationally, and around the world.
“The STEM shortages are abundant—shortage in the workforce and shortage in the pipeline,” Assouline says. “At the Belin-Blank Center, we are not faced with STEM shortages. Rather, we are on the front-end of getting to see STEM talent in its very early stages.”
However, she adds, so many of the students who are talented in STEM may not have their talent discovered or developed if they don’t have the kinds of experiences afforded them through programs like JSHS.
“Programs like JSHS, which offer a pathway for STEM talent discovery and development, are essential to that process because we know, based upon research, that high school research experience is a critical component to having students involved in STEM at the college level. As a global society, we all lose when we don’t develop the talents of our students.”
The symposium is one of many initiatives that encourage students to start thinking about pursuing STEM careers while they’re still in high school, Flynn says.
“Iowa students are seeking to expand the frontiers of knowledge about themselves and the world around them, which will lead to the creation of industries and jobs for Iowans,” Flynn says. “This symposium provides young scholars a venue to help catalyze these ambitious but achievable goals.”
Editor's Note: To see a related media advisory, visit Students from across Iowa to visit UI for STEM-related research symposium.