STARS students tout real-world lab experience at UMSL

Parkway Central High School student Alex Mesnier (left) spent the summer working in the lab of Keith Stine (right), professor of chemistry at UMSL, as part of the STARS program. Jay Bhattarai, a fourth-year graduate student at UMSL served as a STARS mentor. (Photo by August Jennewein)

It’s the unexpected that Alex Mesnier and Max Bernstein really like about lab work at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Mesnier, a rising senior at Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield, Mo., and Bernstein, a rising junior at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in Ladue, Mo., spent the summer working in the lab of Keith Stine, professor of chemistry at UMSL as part of the 2013 Students and Teachers as Research Scientists at UMSL. They researched the materials and biochemical aspects of carbohydrates. Their projects made use of the facilities in the Center for Nanoscience at UMSL.

“It’s cool working in a real lab instead of a high school lab,” Mesnier said. “It’s a lot more difficult, but more rewarding. I definitely learned a lot more from it than being in class.”

He said in high school, the experiments are preplanned and controlled, students have been doing them for years, and there are expected results. He likes that in a real lab outcomes are not guaranteed.

The pair joined nearly 90 high school students who took part in the STARS program at UMSL. The six-week course offers academically talented juniors and seniors the opportunity to work in research labs with some of the top scientists in the St. Louis metro area.

“I’ve never had an experience like this before,” Bernstein said. “It’s kind of overwhelming at first, but it’s very interesting learning about all the different equipment and procedures.”

While Bernstein and Mesnier were overseen by Stine, day-to-day they worked one-on-one with their own UMSL graduate student mentors.

Abeera Sharma, a fourth-year grad student at UMSL, has worked with STARS students for the past two years and looks forward to her summer mentorship. She said the STARS students are really smart and catch on quickly.

“It’s very easy to train them because they are so eager to learn,” Sharma said. Jay Bhattarai, another fourth year graduate student at UMSL, is also serving as a mentor this summer. Yih Horng Tan, a postdoctoral associate in Stine’s lab, has worked with STARS students also in recent years, and often answers their questions and helps.

When the STARS students aren’t working on their own projects they help the graduate students with their research work and learn about other projects going on in the lab.

Stine is approaching his tenth summer of working with STARS students and is a big fan of the program. He said the students are highly motivated and are looking to get the most they can out of the experience.  It’s also a boon for the university, which gets to provide students a rare experience.

“It shows local area high school students how much research is going on at UMSL and how they can participate in it,” Stine said.

STARS is funded partially through LMI Aerospace/D3 Technologies, the Office of the Chancellor at UMSL, Saint Louis University, Washington University in St. Louis, Green Foundation and Solae.

Participants in the 2013 program include students from the St. Louis metro area, as well as Connecticut, Florida, Illinois and Greece.

STARS will wrap up its six-week program with a ceremony at 3 p.m. July 19 at the E. Desmond and Mary Ann Lee Theater in the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at UMSL. The event is free and open to the public.


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