CLIMB Program provides area high school students hands-on research experience in UMSL labs

CLIMB interns Aniyah Ware, Shawn Robinson and Shaniyah Sparkling

(From left) Hazelwood East rising senior Aniyah Ware, Hazelwood East graduate Shawn Robinson and Riverview Gardens graduate Shaniyah Sparkling were three of the 13 students to take part in the Collaborative Laboratory Internship and Mentoring Blueprint Program at UMSL. The program, in its eighth year, has also served students from Jennings, Ritenour and University City. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Shawn Robinson admits to being reluctant when applying to the University of Missouri–St. LouisCollaborative Laboratory Internships and Mentoring Blueprint Program, more commonly known as CLIMB.

Robinson, who graduated from Hazelwood East High School in the spring, had ideas of living it up during his final summer before heading off to a college, and he wasn’t sure how they meshed with doing chemistry research in a laboratory. He even contemplated getting out of it through indifference.

“I remember I missed the interview,” Robinson recalled last week. “My assistant principal came up to me and was like, ‘You’re going to walk downstairs and tell Dr. Key that you had to work and you missed the interview, and you want to reschedule?’”

Robinson knew better than to argue, so he went and found Rhonda Key, the assistant superintendent for high school education, school safety and alternative education in the Hazelwood School District and a CLIMB Program co-director, and got another chance.

He counts himself grateful that he did.

The 13 interns to take part in the 2022 CLIMB Program listen intently while seated in the front row at the closing event

The 13 CLIMB Program interns sit together in the front row at a closing event held last Friday in the Summit Lounge in the J.C. Penney Conference Center.

Robinson, spent the past five weeks as a paid intern, earning $15 per hour while working in the lab of Eike Bauer, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He had a chance to do hands-on research involving curcumin and learned how it can be modified for medicinal purposes to make it more soluble and increase its availability to the body.

“It was truly an eye-opening experience,” said Robinson, who’s headed to Missouri University of Science and Technology to major in computer science. “I’ve seen all of the things that I’ve learned over the years come to fruition and actually be put into practice.”

It held his interest much more than any high school science classes he’d taken, and it’s inspired him to also study chemistry in college.

“It was a great pleasure to work with him,” Bauer said of Robinson. “He quickly learned techniques we need for our research and he collected important data for us. He is very intrigued about research.”

Patricia Parker, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Zoological Studies, established the CLIMB Program as a partnership with administrators in the Jennings School District in 2015. They wanted to help foster that level of scientific interest in high-ability but low-opportunity students who might not otherwise have had chances to receive comparable hands-on lab experience.

With the help of Key and others, it’s expanded to serve students from four other school districts – University City, Ritenour, Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood.

After operating the program in a virtual format in 2020 and doing a group research project on bee pollination outdoors in community gardens last spring and summer because of COVID-19, CLIMB returned to its original format this summer. Thirteen interns took part in the program with five assigned to research laboratory groups in biology, three in chemistry and one in psychological sciences.

“Students learn techniques and a way of thinking that is difficult to teach in traditional lecture courses,” said Bauer, who was back serving as one of the faculty research mentors after hosting interns in 2018 and 2019. “Exploring something new is different than following known procedures or pathways. And students see a chemistry laboratory and how it functions, which is also a learning experience.”

Parker said this year’s group of interns might be the strongest in eight years of the program.

Aniyah Ware, a rising senior at Hazelwood East, spent her summer in the lab of Lon Chubiz, an associate professor of biology. She studied soil bacteria and the different bacterial composition of different soil types.

A CLIMB intern describes his research as pictures from his lab are projected onto a screen

An intern gives a presentation on his research while showing photos from inside the lab during last week’s CLIMB Program closing event.

“CLIMB is very hands-on, and there’s fast movement,” said Ware, who’s undecided on her college plans but would like to one day go to medical school. “In high school, you cover a unit in a week or two. But in CLIMB, every day you come in, and there’s a different topic you need to learn and different techniques that you need to pick up. It’s just full speed.”

The experience proved reassuring for Ware.

“It was very valuable because it’s letting me know that I’m on the right path with what I want to do,” Ware said. “It’s a great way start off, especially when you’re undecided about science or STEM-related jobs or careers, to see if it’s what you like. Even people who aren’t interested in STEM, I’d still suggest it just because they get the experience.”

Shaniyah Sparkling, who graduated from Riverview Gardens High School in the spring, is planning to major in political science when she enrolls at UMSL this fall. But she learned a lot working in the lab of Bettina Casad, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, studying reactions to racism and sexism.

“Shaniyah is bright and inquisitive,” Casad said. “She has a curiosity about many topics and that is a sign of a great researcher. More than anything, researchers should be curious to learn more about intriguing topics, and when it comes to human behavior, there are unlimited topics.”

Sparkling learned two experimental research protocols involving the collection of electroencephalography – or EEG – data.

“I had mentors and graduate students that helped me through it,” Sparkling said.

She plans to continue to assist with data collection in Casad’s lab this fall. But the CLIMB Program also helped her get a head start on getting acclimated to the college environment, including the layout of the UMSL campus.

“To get acquainted with the facilities and professors was great,” Sparkling said. “I won’t be completely lost on the first day.”

All 13 students also worked with Jill Alexander, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Communication and Media, to learn multimedia skills, which they incorporated into their final presentations, delivered at a closing event Friday afternoon in the Summit Lounge in the J.C. Penney Conference Center.

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