Most high school students spend their summer free time lounging by the pool, wandering through the mall with their friends, watching movies in air-conditioned theaters or playing hours of video games.
For the last three years, Tyler Haeberle has spent a lot of his free time in a laboratory doing research on brain tumors.
"It's a passion," Haeberle said. "I've always treated it like a job, but it's always been a passion."
Haeberle was a sophomore when he was nominated by one of his teachers at Bioscientific High School in Phoenix to the Scientific Enrichment Program for Students, or SEPS. After earning the valedictorian spot at his high school, Haeberle is starting his freshman year at Arizona State University as an honors molecular biology major. Eventually he hopes to earn a PhD and teach and conduct research at a university.
SEPS looks to connect students with an interest in scientific research to mentors who work in research laboratories, said Adrienne Scheck, Haeberle's mentor and one of the founders of the program.
Scheck works as a principal investigator in neuro-oncology research at the Barrow Neurological Institute of Oncology at the St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center. It is through her mentorship that Haeberle is able to study the potential influence one particular gene has on the drug resistance of tumors.
"I was given a lot of autonomy to pick my own project," Haeberle said. This came after a few months of learning laboratory safety, protocols and other basics. He conducts his own research, records his own data and eventually will publish a paper on his findings.
This is in conjunction with Scheck's research, which deals in drug resistance and novel therapies in neuro-oncology, or brain tumor-related medicine.
The student researchers enable primary research that wouldn't necessarily be able to be done without them.
Most scientific research is funded by grants and without that money, laboratories can't afford to conduct research. A lot of the time, primary data is needed to even get grant funding, Scheck said. Students can do some of that research that can lead to grants or to projects that would otherwise be pushed to a back burner.
"Tyler's gone above and beyond," Scheck said.
While he was in high school, Haeberle worked eight to 16 hours each week, more than the required six hours per week. This summer, he worked regular hours of 40 hours a week, above and beyond the 4-day minimum.
During the summer, Haeberle conducted experiments that led to data collection, he said. Once he's collected enough and can replicate his findings, he will publish.
That goal, he says is far away, but Scheck seems more optimistic.
"This summer, he came a long way," Scheck said. "Most of our students' best research comes in the summer because they have all day to really dig into their work."The experience has taught Haeberle a number of things, and not just about science.
"It's helped me develop critical thinking, I've learned to ask good questions and I've learned patience - especially patience," he said with a laugh. "I still like doing this even when it's giving me crap."
The application process for SEPS is competitive. Each local high school is able to nominate two students for the program. Students must be a sophomore, junior or senior in high school. Applicants are required to submit a one-page essay and group interviews are scheduled with future mentors.
Each year generally, 60 students are nominated, 30 to 40 complete the application. Most years there are four to eight open spots.
The number of available mentors is what really limits the program, Scheck said. And they are always looking for additional mentors.
"It's often amazing how much these kids can bring to a lab," Scheck said. "Their hunger for knowledge is incredible."
And they offer more than just free labor, she said.
"It's really cool to get them to use their brain in a way that is different from how they learn in school," Scheck said. "And it gets us (researchers) to think in different ways."
It goes back to the old adage, that there is not such thing as a stupid question.
"But there are such things as naive questions and those are not always easy questions to answer," Scheck said. "And that can be a good thing because it reminds us that there are some things most people don't know."If you are interested in becoming a mentor for SEPS, please contact Adrienne Scheck at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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