Providing a head start for TAMS research
While many teenagers are spending their summer at the pool or playing video games, dozens of UNT Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science students are conducting research in laboratories across the UNT campus. Summer scholarships and generous faculty members offer rare opportunities for these young students to delve into research areas of their choosing and to familiarize themselves with rigorous and advanced methodologies.
TAMS, the nation's first accelerated residential program for gifted high school students to enroll in college-level classes, has long offered scholarships for students to conduct research between the first and second year of the program. In 2016 TAMS began offering scholarships for students finishing their sophomore year of high school who have received early acceptance to the TAMS program.
In 2018, forty-five rising TAMS seniors received TAMS Research Scholarships, and 10 incoming students received TAMS Early Research Scholarships. These programs coexist with the campus-wide interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Fellowship, coordinated by the Honors College and open to any student at UNT. All three awards encourage students to seek out research mentors and experience research-based undergraduate education.
“Undergraduate research in TAMS — going back 30 years — is setting the new standard for similar research across the disciplines,” says James Duban, associate dean for Research and National Scholarships for TAMS and the Honors College.
These scholarships allow students to live on campus for the 10-week summer session, during which time they will devote some 40 hours a week to research. During the 2018-19 school year, these students will join the campus-wide, multi-college Undergraduate Research Fellows, all of whom are preparing posters for presentation at Scholars Day in April 2019.
“Our student are accomplishing great things,” Duban says. “That is, with the help of extremely generous research mentors and through funding provided by administrators who believe in the importance of undergraduate research.”
A few students are participating for the second summer. Among these students are Raahi Menon, Mira Patel and Ellen Qian, who are continuing projects they began last summer and worked on through their first year in TAMS.
Menon learned about the program when his older brother attended the program. He describes how his brother’s “face would light up” when he talked about his research. Now Menon shares this enthusiasm.
“I find it really fun to connect the dots,” beams Menon, who is conducting research in the lab of Douglas Root, associate professor of biology. “At first biology really confused me. I had to dive into the literature.”
Menon now, with greater proficiency, studies a regulatory protein that contributes to muscle contraction. He says he has learned that he really likes biology, but he also really like computers. Still unsure how he might combine those interests, he knows that his early research experience has opened up a lot of options.
“It’s a good way to prepare you for the future,” Menon says.
Qian, who is working with William Acree, professor of analytical chemistry, says she has always been interested in helping the environment and enjoyed STEM classes. Her experience with undergraduate research is leading her to consider graduate studies in science.
“Research was a way to explore STEM,” she explains. “Doing research has made me more interested in academia.”
Patel, who has been working in the lab of Pamela Padilla, associate professor of biology, had no exposure to research before last summer.
“TAMS makes it easier to get into research in the first place,” Patel says.
She monitors the stress response of microscopic worms toward creating a small-scale model to understand diabetes. She credits the program with providing credits the program with providing a foundation in methodology and helping her narrow her focus on molecular biology.
“At first I was really freaked out by the worms. The work requires a lot of patience and delicacy,” Patel explains. “But I felt like I needed to finish what I started.”
Patel, like Qian and Menon, plans to continue her research until she graduates from TAMS next spring. The TAMS scholarships and the Undergraduate Research Fellowships will prepare them for future studies and careers in science or other fields. They may not pursue graduate studies in STEM, but the impact of their experiences can still be far-reaching.
“These students frequently find themselves years ahead in their fields of study,” Duban say. “They are more likely to achieve success in national scholarship competitions and eventually gain preemptive fellowship offers to pursue graduate study.”