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Vara Vungutur, Summer Experience with KEYS

During the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to participate in the KEYS (Keep Engaging Youth in Science) Research Internship program here at the University of Arizona. It was one of the best experiences of my life, because not only was I able to participate in undergraduate level molecular biology research, I also made many friends and connections which helped me grow as a person. This internship program instilled in me a new found confidence and passion for science, and it also showed me what a great institution the University of Arizona is, in terms of community, faculty, and research opportunities. It was one of the main reasons why I chose the University of Arizona to pursue my undergraduate education and why I was able to start undergraduate research my freshman year.

This summer, I was able to return to KEYS, not as an intern, but as a crew mentor. I was really excited to be a part of it once again, and to see the other side of the program. I got to work with some of my interns from my year, interns from other years, and my mentors from when I was in high school. KEYS this summer was online, so all the work I did was remote through Zoom. All the fifty interns also worked with their labs from home via zoom. They all were in labs from different departments like life science, environmental science, molecular and cellular biology, and the physical sciences. My job was to mentor a group of six interns. I attended their lab meetings, helped them complete their weekly assignment, and worked with them on completing a final poster and slideshow presentation.

Though KEYS is a research internship program, it also serves to help students build social and communication skills as well as confidence. To develop a sense of community amongst the interns and help them grow, my fellow mentors and I organized weekly zoom socials with all fifty students and separate meetings with our own group of interns. We would play online multiplayer games with them like bingo, jeopardy, and pictionary or we would have themes for our socials like a talent show and tell and arts and crafts where interns should showcase their hobbies. It was really cool to see how comfortable the interns got with each other over the six weeks and how so many gained self-confidence in themselves and their STEM skills.

My favorite part of the program was helping my select group of interns with their poster and slideshow presentation during the last two weeks of the program. For the four weeks prior I had watched them learn how to communicate with their labs, tackle advanced science material, and work on a project alongside their lab mentor. So when it came time to the end of their internship, it was really fun helping them create a poster and slide show presentation that they were proud to share. I was really grateful that my interns trusted me with designing, editing, and rehearsing their final presentation. It was just so rewarding to watch their final presentations and how proud the interns and their labs were.

I would like to thank Brooke Moreno, Kelle Hyland, and Robyn Pratt for giving me the opportunity to be a mentor this summer. The interns were a pleasure to work with, and the amount of work they put into the research despite it being all online was inspirational to see.