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Health Sciences Lab Provides Hands-On Experience for High School Students to Postdocs

The Slepian Lab is a fertile ground for cultivating future scientists, welcoming high school students and undergrads into the fold.
Left to right: Alice Sweedo, PhD candidate; Samuel Miller-Gutierrez; Daniel Palomares (PhD student); and Marvin J. Slepian, MD

Health Sciences Lab Provides Hands-On Experience for High School Students to Postdocs

Yi-Jen Yang is a junior at Oro Valley BASIS High School, but worked side by side with undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students, as well as faculty members, in a major laboratory at the University of Arizona in 2019.

The 16-year-old spent the summer working in a laboratory headed by internationally noted physician-scientist Marvin J. Slepian, MD. Slepian is a Regents’ Professor and professor in the College of Medicine - Tucson, professor and associate department head of biomedical engineering, and a McGuire Scholar in the Eller College of Management at UArizona. As a member of the lab team, Yang conducted research, presented findings and helped make real-world biomedical research advancements.

High school student Yi-Jen Yang works on a device that tests whether blood has functioning platelets that can properly aggregate and coagulate.

Funded primarily by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Slepian Lab is based at the Arizona Center for Accelerated Biomedical Innovation (ACABI), a translational research-and-development center, founded and directed by Dr. Slepian and supported and funded by UArizona Health Sciences and Tech Launch Arizona. ACABI serves as a university-wide creativity center, functioning as an “inventor’s workshop” for UArizona faculty, students, and the domestic and global communities.

“Being a high school sophomore, with only basic chemistry and biology lab skills, going into a professional university setting with college students and postdocs definitely was an intimidating transition,” Yang recalls. “I was so nervous I would make mistakes or that I wouldn’t meet my lab mentor’s expectations. But all of my doubts washed away on the first day of lab. The lab members’ kindness, patience and consideration blew me away.”

And she found Dr. Slepian extremely supportive: “It was so nice to hear someone so strongly support my passion for medicine and science.”

“Providing a lab experience early on for students allows them to see firsthand that they too can get involved, become scientists, engineers, and innovators and make a difference,” Dr. Slepian says. “It converts what seems too far-reaching and complicated to something real, fun and tangible!”

“Students will become next-generation problem-solvers — as physicians, biomedical engineers or other health professionals, and as biomedical innovators.”
Marvin J. Slepian, MD, Regents’ Professor

And innovation long has been a hallmark of the Slepian Lab and ACABI. Over the years, Dr. Slepian’s laboratory has focused on the development and use of novel biomaterials for tissue engineering, drug delivery and medical device development.

The lab has developed many novel diagnostics and therapeutics now in clinical use, including drug-eluting stent technologies; stent coatings; “polymer paving,” surgical anti-adhesive barriers; stretchable and biodegradable electronics; synthetic tissue sealants; and cardiovascular prosthetic devices, including the total artificial heart. The lab also collaborated on the development of a device used in the emergency department, operating room and blood banks that delivers lifesaving platelet function data to the health care provider in six minutes at the point of care.

Lucas Hawley, a UArizona sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering, became interested in research as a high school student when he attended an Engineering Academy at UArizona and spent time in Dr. Slepian’s lab.

“I’ve always been interested in research so this has been a huge opportunity for me,” says Hawley, who now works at the lab and wants to attend medical school and focus on wilderness medicine. “It has simply been amazing to be involved in the projects in this lab. And if you don’t like your project, you can move on to a different project.”

Kaitlyn Ammann, PhD, a Health Sciences postdoctoral research associate in the lab who studies vascular and wearable devices, helps mentor the younger students.

“I think the lab is pretty unique in that we actually want the younger students to work on research projects that will contribute to the field they’re interested in,” Dr. Ammann says.

Some of the high school students have had their names included on academic journal articles, she says.

High school student Yi-Jen Yang works side by side with her mentor, Marvin J. Slepian, MD, on a device that tests whether blood has functioning platelets that can properly aggregate and coagulate.

“I think the students are always surprised how much work goes into such articles,” Dr. Ammann says. “But the ones who decide to stick it out and put the work into it get their names on papers.”

Yang was placed in the Slepian Lab through her participation in UArizona’s selective summer internship program, KEYS (Keep Engaging Youth in Science). Even now, she stops by the lab during breaks, and plans to do her senior project there.

“I am contributing to the research and development of a new point-of-care device known as the MICELI chip,” Yang says. “To better understand a patient’s capability to stop bleeding on their own, this device tests whether their blood has functioning platelets that can properly aggregate and coagulate.”

The laboratory experience has inspired Yang to pursue a career in medicine.

“My main educational goals are to attend the University of Arizona and major in bioinformatics and business, along with a pre-med track. After my undergraduate years, I hope to attend medical school at the University of Arizona,” Yang says. “I love children and I love research so it would be an absolute honor if I could work in the children’s hospital of the future.”

Dr. Slepian is proud of the role his lab plays in cultivating future scientists.

“Our entire lab always emphasizes to students the value of science, engineering, research investigation and creativity for our collective future,” Dr. Slepian says. “The concept is that these students will become next-generation problem-solvers — as physicians, biomedical engineers or other health professionals — and, more broadly, as biomedical innovators.”