Not your usual summer jobs

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

Last summer, Keller resident Kacy Peek was training to become a camp counselor, a typical summer job for many high school students.

Trophy Club resident Kenneth Morales, meanwhile, worked in a grocery store.

But this year, the high school students are spending up to 50 hours a week in the University of North Texas research laboratory of Dr. Brian Ayre, a biology faculty member. The two are splicing DNA from mustards, cabbages and tobacco plants onto other plants to test a theory that sugars from different plants are transported with different efficiencies, and that the transport efficiency contributes significantly to growth rate of the plant. They hope their research will lead to more productive plant growth.

Although they have little free time for summer fun, both are enjoying their work.

 "I'm doing something more accomplished than sitting at home watching cartoons or hanging out," Morales says. "I'm actually getting paid to learn. In high school, I was taught about DNA, but it might as well have been Saturn because I couldn't actually see it. Now I can."

 Morales and Peek are students at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS),  a two-year residential program at UNT that allows talented students to complete their freshman and sophomore years of college while earning their high school diplomas. Students enroll in the academy following their sophomore year in high school, live in a UNT residence hall and attend UNT classes with college students. After two years, they enroll at UNT or another university to finish their bachelor's degrees.

Morales, a former Northwest High School student, and Peek, a former Keller High School student, are two of 50 students being paid $4,000 this summer to conduct research at a UNT laboratory or at another research laboratory in Texas during the academy's Summer Research Program. The student researchers, who range in age from 15 to 17, are working at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, UT-Dallas, Rice University, the UT Health Science Center at Houston, as well as at UNT.

Peek says her summer research scholarship allowed her to continue her research with Ayre after she volunteered in his laboratory during the spring semester.

"I am able to further my research and get a head stat on my goals of receiving a Ph.D/MD and be published in a scientific journal," she says.

From its opening in 1988, TAMS has provided stipends to students who want to conduct research during the summer between their first and second years in the academy.

 This year, however, TAMS received a $298,230 grant through the U.S. Department of Education to enhance its Summer Research Program and provide stipends to more student researchers.

Students must apply for the Summer Research Program after first contacting a UNT faculty member or other researcher and asking to work in his or her laboratory. Selection for the program is based on grade point average, commitment to working in the laboratory for at least eight weeks, interest in science and career goals.

Amy Chuong is researching apoptosis, or spontaneously programmed cell death, at UT Southwestern Medical Center. She says her work has made her summer more interesting than past summers.

"I attended a one-week genetics camp a few summers ago, and I went to a second one that was four weeks long, but neither of them had in-depth research that I could pursue. It was more of a matter of following the instructions," she says.

Chuong, who is from Arlington and attended Trinity Valley High School before entering TAMS, says she's been interested in genetics since second grade, when she watched a PBS television series on the subject that her grandparents had videotaped.

"I don't remember this, but my parents said I watched the whole thing three straight times through," she says.

Now she's hoping that her research can lead to new understanding about genetic diseases.

"You have cells in your body that are supposed to die at a certain time," she says. "Sometimes, however, cells either die far more rapidly than they should, or do not die at all, and this can lead to diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and cancer. Through studies of how genes affect apoptosis, it is very possible that cures for these diseases may be found within the next few years."

In addition to working in university research laboratories, TAMS students are also at NASA's Johnson Space Center at Clear Lake this summer. Four or five students are chosen each year for the space center's High School Aerospace Scholars program.

Stephanie Hsu, from Coppell, and fellow TAMS student Brandon Wilson are part of a team that is building a video box to broadcast feeds from the International Space Station to Earth.

"Japanese television wants to send down broadcasts after a Japanese astronaut is placed on the station later this year," Hsu says. "The box is already built, but there are some problems with the quality of the video feed. Our job is to iron out the kinks."

Former Colleyville Heritage High School student Kyle Guillet, meanwhile, is mapping out a plan for a manned mission to the moon and to Mars as part of the Johnson Space Center's safety and mission assurance team. It's his first paid summer job.

"It's cool to be out of the house and be working," he says. "This is a dream come true for any devout science enthusiast."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108