STARS student Preethi UmaShanker works in the laboratory with with her mentor, James Bashkin, professor of chemistry at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

At 15, with college right around the corner, Preethi UmaShanker has been giving a lot of thought to the universal question that plagues most teenagers, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

Fortunately for UmaShanker, she has a jump on the answer.

“Science is definitely a path I want to take,” said the resident of St. Charles, Mo., who is entering her junior year at Mary Institute and Country Day School in Ladue, Mo.

This summer, UmaShanker joined more than 80 students from 33 high schools taking part in the 2012 STARS program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.  STARS stands for Students and Teachers as Research Scientists. The program pairs students with top research mentors from UMSL, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Saint Louis University, Washington University in St. Louis and the Solae Company.

UmaShanker’s mentor is James Bashkin, professor of chemistry at UMSL. She’s been helping him make new molecules for his research, which centers on developing antiviral drugs for the human papillomavirus or HPV, the chief cause of cervical cancer. Bashkin is also mentoring Affton High School (St. Louis County) student Jimmy Lam.

UmaShanker said STARS is a great program for anyone interested in science. An upshot is that it gives participants great hands-on opportunities and learning experiences.

“You can pick a topic that you’re interested in and that you might be interested in and kind of look further at that collegiate level and beyond and you get a taste of what it could be like if you wanted to pursue it,” she said.

UmaShanker is mulling being a researcher, neuroscientist or a physician. She also added another option to her career list courtesy of her STARS experience.

“Organic chemistry now is open to me from being in this lab and learning about all that,” she said.

And science appears to be in her genes. Her dad is a scientist who works at the management level at a chemical manufacturing company in St. Louis, and her brother is planning on studying biochemistry when he heads to college next year.

“It’s kind of like what I was born to do,” she said, chuckling. “It definitely has played a role in what I like to do.” But she’s quick to add that there’s no pressure to go into the family business either. She found she liked science all on her own.

For many teens, summertime means sleeping in and playing with friends, being far from a classroom setting. But UmaShanker said STARS is a good balance of academics and fun.

“They have a lot of kids. They organize social events for us. It’s a really good time because you get to meet new people. You’re also learning a lot,” she said.

Bashkin said the young people taking part are progressing by leaps and bounds. He chalks it up to the fact they’re working with increasing independence in his lab. He also believes the experience gives students a leg up in their future studies.

“I think that it will help them in their later studies because they’ll be seeing things that they’ve actually seen before,” he said. “And so everything won’t look unfamiliar.”

UmaShanker has been undertaking real-world, real-life experiences in Bashkin’s lab, something he’s proud to offer his mentees.

“I don’t view coming into the lab and doing busy work as a worthwhile exercise,” he said.  “I just wanted them to jump right in.”

His students also work with experienced scholars in the lab.

“Because their time here is relatively short, we wanted to make it as rich an experience as possible,” said Bashkin.

UmaShanker and Bashkin actually met years ago when she was around two-years-old. Her father worked in Bashkin’s lab at another university. Bashkin said it was a joy to reconnect with UmaShanker.

“It’s quite amazing to see Preethi now, so many years later, all grown up and just doing a terrific job in the lab,” he said.

This is Bashkin’s first year being a mentor for STARS. He said the program really has the right idea about nurturing future scientists and researchers.

“We need to give our best kids in the area an opportunity to explore what they think they might be interested in so they can learn about it more.” Bashkin said. “There are a lot of areas in science and technology and this helps kid’s hone in on what they might want to study in college.  In fact, all kids deserve such an opportunity, in science or other areas that attract them.”

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

Participants in the 2012 program include 82 students from 33 high schools in the St. Louis metro area, as well as California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa and Greece.

STARS will wrap up its six-week program with a ceremony at 3 p.m. July 20 in the J.C. Penney Building/Conference Center at UMSL. The event is free and open to the public.

Myra Lopez

Myra Lopez

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