STARS program

Clockwise from left, Ellie Gira of MICDS, Supraneeth Yedem of Marquette High School, Riya Aradhyula of Marquette High School, Ichara Shetty of Parkway Central High School, Emma Scally of MICDS and Ryan Lally of St. Louis Priory School were among 36 students from 15 area high schools participating in the 2021 Students and Teachers As Research Scientists Program. Each of the six was recognized for delivering the best presentation in one of six sessions as the program concluded last Friday. (Screenshots)

Jim Maher shared his personal journey into research and discovery with 36 science-minded high school students taking part in the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ Students and Teachers As Research Scientists program – more commonly known as STARS – during their confirmation ceremony Friday morning.

In a virtual presentation titled “The Dangers of Driving with a Broken Engine,” Maher, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told the students about the origins of his interest in paraganglioma, beginning with his surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his abdomen as a 14-year-old in 1975.

Jim Maher

Jim Maher (at right), a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, delivered the keynote address during Friday’s STARS confirmation ceremony and shared how his research interest in paraganglioma grew out of his own experience with the disease. (Screenshot)

Paraganglioma is a type of neuroendocrine tumor that can form in blood vessels and nerves outside of the adrenal glands, and Maher has been on an ongoing quest to better understand the disease throughout multiple recurrences in different parts of his body in the decades since.

“Why I studied this cancer is partly because it affects me and made me curious but also because it’s such a puzzling cancer,” Maher said. “When I began to talk about it with my physician and learn about the biochemistry of this cancer, I found it irresistibly bizarre, and there weren’t many people studying it.”

It’s that curiosity that has sustained his work, not only on paraganglioma but on other research topics such as DNA flexibility, artificial gene regulation and multiple sclerosis, and that was what Maher hoped the students took away from his roughly 20-minute talk.

“I want you to stay curious and not give up on things that don’t make sense and pursuing them because you think that they are fascinating,” Maher told them. “I hope someday some of you will go on to careers in molecular biology or basic science or PhDs. But whatever you do with your curiosity, I’m super proud that you’re going to be honorable scientists and physicians and leaders in our society in the future. So, thank you for being an inspiration already. I want you to take that curiosity with you to the next step.”

The STARS program has been working to foster that curiosity in talented area high school students since 1989. The students, heading into their senior years, get paired with local scientists in the fields of biology, chemistry, computer science, earth science, engineering, environmental science, mathematics, medicine, physics and psychology and gain firsthand experience doing research for six weeks during the summer.

“It’s transformational for the students who do it,” said Meghann Humphries, an assistant teaching professor in UMSL’s Department of Biology who served as the program’s coordinator this summer. “I think it really opens their eyes to what exactly science is and to how you have to persist. It’s not clean. It’s not quick. It’s frustrating. It takes time. You have setbacks, and you have to stick with it. I think that’s a big deal for them to experience.”

STARS had to be canceled last summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continued uncertainty about the public health situation led Humphries to adapt it to a virtual format. The students attended lectures over Zoom rather than in person with scientists from a variety of research backgrounds and coordinating their own research projects under the direction of one of 18 primary investigators from the faculty at UMSL, Saint Louis University or Washington University in St. Louis.

It was more challenging that usual to find faculty members willing to host students in their labs this summer, due to the uncertain circumstances, so they couldn’t offer as many spots in the program as in a typical year. But there was still plenty of demand.

“It was extremely competitive this year, even though it was this different arrangement,” Humphries said. “We had nearly 100 applications. We ended up accepting these 36 from 15 different high schools in the area.”

They conducted research on topics such as electrochemistry, gastroenterology, machine learning, pollinator biology and robotics, and they received insight into the college admissions process and how to craft a strong essay to accompany their applications.

“The great majority of them anticipate becoming physicians, but many of them will not,” Humphries said. “So, what I wanted to do was expose them to all these possible research careers that are either medically adjacent or, in some cases, are wholly separate from medicine, because I think they’re super interesting, and I think that the students might find them interesting too and open their eyes to other options.”

The students who made up this year’s STARS class were:

Riya Aradhyula, Marquette High School
Siri Battula, Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School
Shelly Bhagat, Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School
Arya Bhushan, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
Cedric Burges, Saint Louis Priory School
Driptaa Chakraborty, Marquette High School
Karthik Digavalli, Fort Zumwalt South High School
Ellie Gira, Mary Institute and St Louis Country Day School
Angad Gothra, Saint Louis University High School
Saanvi Gowda, Fort Zumwalt West High School
Jiabei Han, Clayton High School
Deena Iqbal, Lafayette High School
Sanjana Iyer, Marquette High School
Tejasvini Kadiyala, Lafayette High School
Aditya Kondepudi, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
Ryan Lally, Saint Louis Priory School
Priyanka Mahadev, St. Dominic High School
Trisha Manna, Parkway West High School
Robert Mize, Saint Louis University High School
Mitchell Oldham, Lindbergh High School
Rhea Patney, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
Pooja Reddy, Lafayette High School
Soham Saraf, Marquette High School
Emma Scally, Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School
Tejal Shanker, Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School
Kanishk Shanmugam, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
Inchara Shetty, Parkway Central High School
Surya Sompalli, Fort Zumwalt West High School
Taylor Soukup, Timberland High School
Angelina Spencer, Westminster Christian Academy
Rohan Tatikonda, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
Richard Taylor, Saint Louis University High School
Daniel Xu, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
Yiyun Xu, Clayton High School
Supraneeth Yedem, Marquette High School
Danielle Zhang, Ladue Horton Watkins High School

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

Eye on UMSL: Building blocks

Members of the Spring 2024 graduating class of the University of Missouri–St. Louis play Jenga during the annual New Grad Bash on Thursday.