North Central High School helped nurture a passion for science in Joseph Lawhead so great that the student, now a Washington State University freshman, said it’s hard to express it in words.
N.C.’s microbiology and genomics research projects helped propel two of the Spokane high school’s students into the running for an elite scientific research program in college.
Called Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies, or STARS, the WSU program began in the 2007-’08 school year. It focuses on scientific research and puts students on a fast-track – seven years – to a doctorate degree. STARS was “developed in the recognition that some incoming students realize early on that they are interested in science as a career,” said Bill Davis, associate professor in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences and undergraduate studies director.
“The students that come into the STARS program and who enroll in my introduction to research class, they are well above average for their enthusiasm for getting into research.”
First-year students work in a research laboratory by their second semester. By the fourth year they are taking undergraduate and graduate courses simultaneously, and must have completed three lab rotations. The student is paired with a mentor, must maintain a 3.5 grade point average and show a continued interest in the program.
STARS students can major in biochemistry with options in molecular biology, genetics and cell biology, or microbiology. The doctorate is in molecular biosciences.
Lawhead, and fellow North Central grad Nicholas Negretti, both 19 and WSU freshmen, will find out in March if they’ve earned spots in the program.
“I would be very, very, very excited,” Lawhead said. “It would mean I just hit the jackpot.”
The two were part of a group of North Central students who worked on yearlong intensive microbiology and genomics projects. While some classmates were researching the DNA of ancient Northern Plains bison, Lawhead and Negretti were helping create a library of the bacteria found in honeybee intestines while researching hive collapse syndrome, which has decimated honeybee populations.
The North Central program “has completely prepared us for this,” Lawhead said.
However, being selected is competitive. Currently, only 11 students are enrolled; about three students are accepted each year. About 12 to 20 apply annually, Davis said.
To have an edge, Lawhead and Negretti are enrolled in Davis’ introduction to research class along with just four other students. After listening to science lectures, the students meet with Davis for an hour outside of class to discuss their understanding of the research.
“Getting students involved in science research has been a goal since I walked through the door,” said Davis, who has been a WSU professor for 10 years. Through the STARS program “these kids have already made an impact. This is changing how we think of undergraduates and how they contribute to research. This is transforming how we think about science.”