STARS graduates have returned to UMSL to continue their science education

by | Dec 3, 2018

Hania Nuraini is majoring in biochemistry and biotechnology while Olivia Crowell pursues engineering on full scholarships, earned by completing the program in 2017.
Hania Nuraini, Olivia Crowell

Hania Nuraini, at left, and Olivia Crowell were two of the 96 high schools students to take part in the STARS program during the summer of 2017. Both accepted full scholarships to continue their academic pursuits at UMSL and are part of this year’s freshman class. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Olivia Crowell had been intrigued by prospect of being in a laboratory, working with her hands and conducting research.

She had always been a kinesthetic learner, and before she really became interested in science at Timberland High School, she’d talked about one day becoming a chef, drawn in part to the hands-on nature of the job.

But it wasn’t until two summers ago when she worked as an intern in Elizabeth Kellogg’s lab, specifically studying the genes that control inflorescence – or clusters of flowers – in the Setaria viridis plant, at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center that Crowell had a chance to test the picture she had of scientific research against reality.

“I didn’t know what the field of research was like,” Crowell said. “I wanted to do it, but it’s different wanting and actually liking it.”

Crowell’s opportunity came through her participation in the precollegiate Students and Teachers as Research Scientists program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Her experience in the six-week summer program not only confirmed her aspiration but also helped convince her that UMSL could be an ideal launching point to help her reach her goals.

She and Hania Nuraini both accepted full scholarships to UMSL, which they earned after completing the STARS program in 2017. The two are now thriving in their first semester as college freshmen.

“STARS has a very good eye for talent,” said Kellogg, who has hosted students in her lab off and on for 20 years, first during her tenure as a faculty member at UMSL and continuing since she moved fulltime to the Danforth Plant Science Center.

She particularly credited STARS Director Ken Mares.

“The students who are chosen for that program tend to be, as a group, very bright and very motivated,” Kellogg said. “Olivia definitely fit into that category.”

Crowell’s real interest lies in renewable energy and energy engineering, and she hadn’t had a background in plant biology before starting the program. But she picked things up quickly with help from Kellogg’s postdoctoral associate Chuanmei Zhu as they went about analyzing how certain genes affect the meristem – research that has implications for growing cereal plants.

Crowell came to really enjoy the experience, relishing things like the beauty of being in the greenhouse at night.

“They tried to emphasize in my lab that you’re supposed to have fun,” she said of one of her biggest takeaways from the summer. “This is your work, and you should love your work, but it doesn’t have to be your life.”

Nuraini, a graduate of Al-Salam College Preparatory High School, was similarly enthusiastic talking about her own experience working in the lab of Bobbi Pineda, who directs the Occupational Therapy NICU Laboratory at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Specifically, Nuraini contributed to research on the different auditory environments premature and full-term infants at St. Louis Children’s and Barnes-Jewish hospitals.

“I was interested in doing something toward that career in the future, and that kind of opened my eyes,” Nuraini said.

She received a research award for her efforts during the STARS program.

“Hania was a very determined, diligent, and intelligent student who fully immersed herself in the research process of our lab,” Pineda said. “From her hard work and intellectual curiosity exhibited during her time in our lab, I am confident that she will excel in her studies and make an impact on her field.”

Crowell and Nuraini were two of 96 high school students to participate in the program before the start of their senior years in 2017.

They all were tasked with drafting an extensive research paper detailing their work and their findings, which they presented to their peers at the conclusion of the program.

In addition to the research component of the program, STARS also offers participants social activities, networking activities and seminars with prominent researchers, typically from across the St. Louis region.

During the confirmation ceremony, UMSL Chancellor Tom George extended each STARS graduate the offer of a scholarship covering tuition and up to $750 for books per semester, as well as funding for research opportunities, and Crowell and Nuraini were ultimately all too happy to take him up on it.

Both students have aspirations beyond their undergraduate degrees.

“I decided that going to UMSL would benefit my scientific career because I had a whole background of people here that already know me,” said Crowell, a student in the Pierre Laclede Honors College. “That could help me go do research someplace. I thought that was pretty cool.”

She has enrolled in the UMSL/WUSTL Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program and has dreams of pursuing a master’s degree in energy engineering in France.

Nuraini has opted to major in biochemistry and biotechnology and wants to use her time at UMSL to prepare for an MD-PhD program.

“I feel like my greatest motivation to embark on a journey within medicine is because of the values I have grown up with, which is the need to give back to mankind by helping others,” she said. “I also aspire to become one of those people who contributes to the scientific body of knowledge that opens the doorway to the future.”

She’s happy with the decisions she’s made that led to the present as she nears the end of her first college semester.

Nuraini felt comfortable at UMSL right away because she had a chance to familiarize herself with campus during her summer in the STARS program, and she has been grateful for the diverse group of people she’s met since she returned.

She hopes others will take advantage of the same opportunities.

“Now that I’ve done the program,” Nuraini said, “I want to recommend it to friends that are interested in doing science as well.”

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Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens
Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.