GALVESTON — High school senior Allyson Schattel is an honor student, a cheerleader and a varsity soccer player for Ball High School.

She also knows more about muscle mass, strength, and its relationship to aging than most 17-year-olds.

Schattel is one of 10 Ball High School students participating in a yearlong independent study program that brings selected students into the real world of biomedical research.

The course, Scientific Research and Design: Bench Tutorials, gives exceptional students a rare opportunity to work in laboratories at the University of Texas Medical Branch with one-on-one tutelage from graduate researchers.

Bench students explore everything from tissue engineering to the effects of carbon monoxide on airway inflammation.

Schattel is working on a strategy to prevent sarcopenia, a degenerative loss of muscle in the elderly, alongside her mentor graduate doctoral student Michael Borack.  

In the past 15 years, more than 200 local students have participated in Bench, and in 2012, the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences recognized it as a program of excellence.

“Exposing Ball High School’s top science students to the rigors and rewards of scientific research is our mission,” Lauren Scott, director for Bench Tutorials at the medical branch, said.

“We hope, of course, that we will attract some of the brightest minds of this new generation into biomedical research,” she said.

Bench was created by the community outreach division of NIEHS at the medical branch, and operates in concert with the school district.

Scott’s program partner is course instructor Michelle Puig, a teacher in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program at Ball High School.

Puig prepares the students with basic lab techniques and meets with them each week to discuss progress and to work on research presentations.

“The importance of the program is that it provides these gifted students with a challenge, a focus and critical thinking skills,” Puig said.

Quincy Siegel finds the work challenging but also has a sense of purpose about the work she is doing.

With her mentor, graduate student Anesh Prasai, she is exploring the healing properties of stem cells for burned tissue in a lab at Shriners Children’s Hospital.  

“Some days I’m in a bad mood when I come to the hospital,” Siegel said. “Then I see these children, who did not choose to have these burns, and they are playing with their friends and laughing. It gives me perspective.”

The research led by Prasai may contribute to helping to grow healthy tissue for victims of massive burns.

Prasai says teaching students one-on-one is particularly rewarding because he can see how another mind is working.

“I try to encourage curiosity,” he said. “Curiosity is what matters.”

Another student, Scott Segura, is working with virology graduate student Alex McAuley to observe the effect of amino acid changes in the West Nile virus glycoprotein.

“It’s a special kind of detective work that requires a lot of attention, but it’s also creative,” Segura said.

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