While many students took a break from academic studies this summer, two rising high school seniors learned about environmental health sciences and career options in the field at The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Park Campus.
Jordan Ryan and Zac Gill, both entering their senior year at Harrison Central High School, spent seven weeks of their summer break in the laboratories of Drs. Rebecca Fillmore and Jennifer Walker, both assistant professors of biological sciences at Southern Miss. Through the university’s Emerging Scholars Program, the students took part in hands-on activities and experiments to gain a better understanding of cells and how they react to variations in their environment.
Working with Fillmore, the students observed how both normal cells and cancer cells react when exposed to BPA, a synthetic compound found in plastics. Through Walker’s research project, the students worked with bivalves, or mussels, by extracting DNA and comparing how they may be affected by their environment.
“I like science and, with the program, I’ve been able to learn about what degree I want to get and where I want to go to college,” said Ryan. “Throughout the summer, we’ve been splitting cells and watching them grow. I’ve really been able to learn what I like and don’t like when it comes to narrowing down a career choice.”
The Emerging Scholars Program is part of the University’s Project for Environmental Awareness and Education grant, which was funded by Tulane University’s Gulf Region Health Outreach Program. Tulane awarded various grants in Gulf States allowing Southern Miss to be the only university in Mississippi to offer the Emerging Scholars Program.
Since receiving the one-year grant in December 2013, Fillmore and Walker have collaborated to host a Marine Science Tech Forum for students and various workshops for educators. The next project for the grant is developing an environmental health curriculum for educators and bringing the curriculum to local classrooms.
As for the students in the Emerging Scholars Program, Ryan and Gill have completed their seven weeks of hands-on research at Southern Miss. Likened to a full-time career, the students took part in their research projects five days a week from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. After completing the program, the students each earned a $1,000 stipend from the grant.
Hoping the grant is renewed for additional years, Fillmore and Walker anticipate the program will make an impact on environmental health curriculum in schools, as well as generate greater interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.
“While they worked on two different research projects throughout the summer, both students learned how the projects fit together,” said Walker. “Since both projects are similar in their use of molecular technology, the students learned how both projects differed in the information they discovered.”