STARS program celebrates the work of its latest class of aspiring scientists

Elizabeth Kellogg addresses students who completed the STARS program during a confirmation ceremony

Elizabeth Kellogg, the Robert E. King Distinguished Investigator at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, speaks to the students who completed the Students and Teachers as Research Scientists program during a confirmation ceremony on Friday at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. (Photos by Steve Walentik)

Elizabeth Kellogg was apologetic as she turned away from the audience and began her talk last Friday afternoon inside the E. Desmond and Mary Ann Lee Theater at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.

“I mean no offense to you guys,” said Kellogg, the Robert E. King Distinguished Investigator at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, “but I actually wrote this to be talking to the students.”

Seated to her left and behind her on the stage were 70 high school students from across the St. Louis region and as far away as Abu Dhabi who spent the past six weeks learning and conducting supervised scientific research in labs around the region as part of the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ Students and Teachers As Research Scientists program, more commonly known as STARS.

Kellogg, serving as the challenge speaker at Friday’s confirmation ceremony, wanted to share some wisdom with them to take away from the experience.

“I’m going to talk briefly about the three most powerful words in science and possibly any creative endeavor,” Kellogg said to the students. “The words are: I don’t know.”

STARS students walk across the stage to accept certificates of completion

Students participating in the STARS program line up to walk across the stage and accept certificates of completion during Friday’s confirmation ceremony.

Kellogg used words from Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska’s 1996 Nobel Prize lecture in explaining her point.

“This was admittedly before you were born, and therefore truly ancient history,” Kellogg told the students. “Szymborska said that ‘Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous I don’t know.’”

The pursuit of so many important discoveries began because there was a question someone didn’t know the answer to and set out to try to find an explanation. Kellogg quoted further from Szymborska’s lecture, which made particular mention of Isaac Newton and Marie Curie, known for their work on gravity and radioactivity, respectively. But legions of other scientists would have fit just as easily in their place.

“It’s not totally about saving the world or even part of the world – although that’s certainly an important byproduct and one that we bring up when trying to explain, especially to our friends and families, why we do what we do,” said Kellogg, whose research explores plant morphology and its impact on crop development. “But the motivation is actually a lot harder to describe, and I think of a lot of it is about that little voice that says, ‘I don’t know the answer to that question. I better figure it out.’ And then an even more deeply motivating thought, ‘I don’t know the answer to that question, and oh, my goodness, nobody else does, either. It’s on me.’

“In your work this summer, I would guess and indeed hope that you found something you really didn’t understand. And maybe you had the courage to say it out loud.”

The STARS program was created to help foster that type of curiosity. Thousands of students have received hands-on training in scientific research through the program under the leadership of Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Biology Charles Granger and longtime Director Ken Mares since it was established in 1989.

Family members and friends of STARS students look on from the audience at the Lee Theater during the confirmation ceremony

Family members and a few friends attended the confirmation ceremony to show their support for students who took part in the six-week STARS program.

This summer, 70 students from a total of 34 high schools took part in the program as it return to its traditional format after being held virtually last summer. They worked within the labs of 40 research mentors in the fields of biology, chemistry, computer science, earth science, engineering, environmental science, mathematics, medicine, physics and psychology. The mentors were from either UMSL or one of its partners – Saint Louis University, Washington University in St. Louis, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center or the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy.

Meghann Humphries, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Biology, took over as the new director of the program this summer after Mares’ retirement. She was happy to see so many mentors return to work with the students after a hiatus the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they are very invaluable at helping guide the students’ research and learning.

“I think the biggest lesson that students learn in STARS is that scientific endeavors are not a linear path, that they have difficulties and there are delays and failed experiments,” Humphries said. “They have to learn to communicate not only what they do understand, but more importantly, maybe what they don’t understand. Some students have had some delays that have made them really quite nervous, and talking to them individually, I’ve tried to help them realize that that is just the nature of science. That’s huge.”

The six weeks also feature opportunities to hear from professional researchers in a variety of fields through a speaker series during group sessions each Monday and Wednesday morning.

Each student had an opportunity to present their research findings on Friday morning. In addition to Kellogg, the confirmation ceremony featured messages from UMSL Chancellor Kristin Sobolik; Wendy Olivas, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Biology; and Chris Spilling, vice chancellor for research and economic and community development.

Each student walked across the stage and received a certificate of completion.

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

Gaayathri Binoj, Parkway Central
Thomas Davidson, Westminster Christian Academy
Maanvi Aggarwal, Parkway South High School
Hafsah Ali, Raha International School
Hannah An, Parkway North High School
Anshul Bandi, Francis Howell North High
Abi Boppana, Saint Louis Priory School
Nina Buzzotta, Parkway Central High School
Anna Carpenter, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
Penelope Chen, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
Renda “Dennis” Chi, Saint Louis Priory School
Ria Chopra, Parkway South High School
Layla Daud, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
Katherine De la Paz, Clayton High School
Rohan Devraj, Marquette High School
Hannah Do, Clayton High School
Cameron Eltoft, Lafayette High School
Esha Francis, Parkway West High School
Arya Gijare, Parkway Central High School
Curtis Goot, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
Yosef Granillo, Home Educated
Colin He, Clayton High School
Ryan Hardwick, John Burroughs School
Benjamin Horwitz, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
Olivia Hu, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
David Hunt, St. Louis University High School
Mira Iyer, Rockwood Summit High School
Shwetha John, St. Joseph’s Academy
Maggie Johnson, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
Anisha Jarang, Clayton High School
Kareena Kanumury, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
Jessica Kellerman, Marquette High School
Kalyan Krish, Parkway North High School
Chinmay Kumar, Lindbergh High School
Grace LeGrand, St. Joseph’s Academy
Enoch Lai, Clayton High School
Evelyn Lui, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
Nathan Ly, St. Louis University High School
Irene Mamontov, Farragut High School
Shashank Mani, Lafayette High School
Anna Maschek, Visitation Academy of St. Louis
Krish Mehta, St. Charles West High School
Aleezah Mufti, Al-Salam Day School
Umer Muhammud, Parkway West High School
Nisha Murali, Parkway Central High School
Chloe Ong, Collegiate Schools of Medicines and Bioscience
Megan Ouyang, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
Pranav Palaniappan, Fort Zumwalt West High School
Mutheshree Rajesh, Bentonville West High School
Aarush Rajoli, Marquette High School
Prakash Ramakrishnan, Clayton High School
Nithya Reddy, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
Refah Reza, Parkway Central High School
Grace Ruyle, Cor Jesu Academy
Kamryn Sample, Ladue Horton Watkins High School
Rishi Sattaluri, Fort Zumwalt West High School
Emma Shao, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
Niveta Sharma, Lafayette High School
Ria Sheth, Fort Zumwalt South High School
Sia Singirikonda, Saint Charles West High School
Meghana Sivabalan, Fort Zumwalt South High School
Iniya Swaminathan, Parkway South High School
Akhila Swarna, Marquette High School
Srisahithi Tadakamalla, Marquette High School
Avery Uffelmann, Lafayette High School
Danusri Varathaja, Marquette High School
Anurag Venigalla, Clayton High School
Sanchi Viswakarma, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
Samuel Wang, Carbondale Community High School
Connor Whalen, St. Louis University High School


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