For local high school student Alondra Alarcón, science is a passion. She is one of two students from Sahuarita Unified School District who have been accepted into a mentorship program which will further encourage their pursuit of a STEM career.
"I've always been into science because it provided an answer or more experience with things," Alarcón said. "Just experiencing how everything works really intrigued me because everything that exists, there's so much behind it."
Alarcón is among 45 students across Southern Arizona accepted into the Students Taking Advantage of Research (S.T.A.R.) Labs program, designed to give students mentorship opportunities and the chance to complete research projects.
The program is a collaboration between the University of Arizona’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation (SARSEF), a nonprofit that has been working to form the next generation of scientists since 1955.
SARSEF Chief Operating Officer Julie Euber said this is the second year of the STAR Labs program, which started with fewer than 20 students and has grown.
“At SARSEF, our big idea is when students work on a question they care about suddenly science changes and becomes an investment that students really connect with no matter who they are,” she said. “This was a really great way to get students even more involved in research, answering questions they care about.”
Students in the program are partnered with a local science mentor who helps guide them through a research project to present at the SARSEF Science and Engineering Fair in March.
Though students who participated in last year’s pilot of STAR Labs worked in a physical space at the University of Arizona, COVID-19 has caused SARSEF to make this year’s program 100 percent virtual.
Euber said that comes with pros and cons.
“It meant we could open up to more mentors and more students and they’re actually meeting via video conferencing. There's so many ways you can do science outside a physical lab,” she said.
The process of going virtual began last year with their fair, an event Euber said has been a Tucson tradition for years. Last year, they featured 7,000 student projects at the Tucson Convention Center, but it was only possible with modifications.
“Really if our fair had even been a day later we could not have had anything but we were able to modify it so we were able to allow remote interviews, space the projects differently so there was more room between each student's interview,” she said. “For the last six months we’ve really been thinking critically on our programs and how to make them virtual while keeping the inspiring connection to science.”
She wanted more
Alarcón is 17 and a senior at Sahuarita High School with a passion for the science of life. She participated in the fair with her class last year and said she was immediately interested when she learned the STAR Lab would continue virtually this year.
“When they announced they were still going to do it, although it was going to be virtually, I didn't really hesitate because I had enjoyed doing my own research and doing my own experiments,” she said. “I felt like having a mentor would only improve and enhance the process and make everything just so much better.”
She is partnered with graduate student John Malloy from Arizona State University to work on a research project about astrobiology, though she’s not sure what question they’ll be seeking to answer yet.
The study of biology is particularly interesting to her.
“I am passionate about biology because there’s a lot that's left to experiment with and I feel like so many human and genetic advancements could be made if we were to just study biology more in-depth,” she said. “I’m really interested in the genetic aspect of it in order to make human advancements and astrobiology, it's sort of the same thing but it applies to extraterrestrial matter.”
Science has fascinated Alarcón from a young age and she sees a future in the field when she graduates.
“I plan to attend the UofA in the future and this really helps me to interact more with people I'll be working with,” she said. “It helps me really get to know the school and it really enforces the idea that I want to become a scientist, just getting this little view of what I want to do in the future.”
Students selected for the STAR Lab go through an application process and have to get a teacher recommendation.
Another SUSD student, Matthew Mayer, was also selected for the STAR Lab program. He is a Walden Grove student who participated in another science program with the UA last summer and will be continuing his research with Professor Melanie Culver, a conservation biologist in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Euber hopes this year and those to come continue to encourage young people to pursue STEM careers and that SARSEF offers increased access for students to engage in research.
“We want them to feel that excitement when you get an answer to your question and then you get a better question,” she said. “There is a level of excitement from science that when you feel it, it can become a part of you and you suddenly see yourself in a science career or maybe you discover science isn't for you but you can go on and better understand science.”
For more information on SARSEF, visit sarsef.org.