Stars of the STARS program choose UMSL

by | Sep 11, 2016

New students Gabrielle Murphy and Christopher Ernst come to UMSL after gaining research experience in the precollegiate STARS program more than a year ago.
Gabrielle Murphy and Christopher Ernst

New students Gabrielle Murphy (left) and Christopher Ernst, both in the Pierre Laclede Honors College, come to UMSL after gaining research experience in the precollegiate STARS program more than a year ago. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Christopher Ernst and Gabrielle Murphy could have gone to almost any university after completing the 2015 precollegiate Students and Teachers as Research Scientists program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

But Ernst and Murphy, two of the best and brightest from the region, chose UMSL because of its research opportunities, close-knit community and affordable tuition.

Each summer, STARS pairs academically talented high school students with more than 60 local scientists and top researchers from Array Bridge, Confluence Discovery Technologies, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Saint Louis University, Washington University in St. Louis and the host institution, UMSL. STARS graduates are among the most sought-after college-bound high school students in the country.

“Maybe I could have gotten a bigger name on my degree, but I would have paid 10 times as much,” said Ernst, a pre-med biology major. “I know I can come here [to UMSL] and do all the same stuff – all the research and courses and get as good a degree experience for a lot less money.”

Both Ernst and Murphy are cashing in this fall on the STARS scholarship to UMSL, which they earned after completing the program the summer before their senior year of high school. It covers full tuition and is renewable for four years with good academic standing. It also means the region retains two students with promising futures.

But money wasn’t the only factor. For Murphy the warm, welcoming community sold her on UMSL, as well as the opportunity to be in the Pierre Laclede Honors College.

Gabrielle Murphy on Move-In Day.

Gabrielle Murphy (center in black) moved into Oak Hall with the help of student volunteers on Move-In Day earlier this fall.

“That was a big reason why I picked UMSL,” said the psychology major. “I love the smaller class size and the discussions we have. Everyone at UMSL is just so friendly. The teachers are great and really care about their students. When I first toured campus, I just fell in love. You know how people have that ‘say yes to the dress’ moment? I had that ‘say yes to college’ moment.”

Murphy finished No. 15 out of 180 in her graduating class from Affton High School, and Ernst finished No. 3 out of 250 in his graduating class from Christian Brothers College High School. Both came into their first year at UMSL with college credit thanks to a combination of Advanced Placement tests and advanced credit programs. In fact, Murphy is technically a sophomore by credit, and Ernst is just shy.

“We are delighted to have both Christopher and Gabrielle among the incoming students this fall at UMSL,” said Ken Mares, director of STARS. “The training they received should serve them well as undergraduate students.”

That training for Ernst included studying with plant scientist James Umen at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. He worked with a specific mutation of green algae called Volvox, which lives in a variety of freshwater habitats. Concerned with a mutation that makes the Volvox mature slowly, Ernst observed and documented the differences between the lagging algae and a traditionally forming, wild-type specimen. The end goal is to understand why certain cells mature the way they do. If scientists can decipher how algae cells differentiate, then there is hope in understanding the same process in human cells – just the beginnings of stem cell research.

A rising senior in high school at the time, Ernst said working on the study with such a leading expert as Umen and ambitious graduate students was “intimidating.” But he also quickly admitted it was an invaluable experience.

“The research paper we wrote was phenomenally helpful as far as any kind of science class that you have to write a report for,” Ernst said. “Nothing is going to compare to the magnitude of what I had to do there, maybe not until I reach med school. Plus it was a really good way to open me up to how much research we have here.”

Murphy’s STARS experience had her working with Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, associate professor of psychiatry at Wash U, whose research interests include the reduction of health and mental health disparities among underserved populations and the risk behaviors associated with substance abuse and dependence.

Murphy surveyed marijuana review videos on YouTube to determine their influence on viewers under 18, the legal age to use in some states. The goal of the research is to present evidence that might increase YouTube’s regulation of such videos decreasing underage exposure to marijuana.

“The big YouTube stars for marijuana talk about things like taste and where to find it, which make it easier to access,” she said.

Murphy said that easy access and early use might complicate mental health conditions.

Now at UMSL, both Murphy and Ernst have additional research opportunities thanks to a $1,500 research stipend the STARS program offers its graduates. The money can fund a semester of research of their choosing during their undergraduate career at UMSL. Neither have settled on which research lab they might like to spend their brain power and money on yet.

Lincoln Presley, Rodeny Whitney and Christopher Ernst

Christopher Ernst (at right) poses with Rodney Whitney (center) and Lincoln Presley after the honors college Paint-A-Palooza event.

Outside of their academics, Ernst and Murphy have also tapped into campus life. Both live in Oak Hall and have joined student organizations at UMSL – The Pre-Med Society for Ernst and To Write Love on Her Arms, a mental health awareness group, for Murphy.

“The first weeks have been really great,” Murphy said. “I met a lot of new people. In high school I wasn’t very popular, but now coming into college, I’m making a ton of new friends. I’m invited to go places. I know a lot of people get homesick when they first come to college; I haven’t felt like that. There are always different events and things to see, just a great sense of community here.”

Ernst is finding that community to be extremely diverse, too.

“I sat next to a woman in my chemistry class – she has a 7-year-old daughter and is finally coming back to get her bachelor’s and eventually her doctorate,” he said. “There are so many other people who were in the military before or attended another university or worked first and are now coming back to school. You get so many different experiences that you don’t find at other universities, where most everyone is in the same boat as you coming out of high school. I appreciate having people around me that kind of know how life works already.”

For more information on the STARS program click here or contact Ken Mares at 314-516-6155 or

The UMSL Experience

Marisol Ramirez

Marisol Ramirez