High school students can experience scientific discovery in UCLA labs

For nearly 15 years, the UCLA Physiology Outreach Program has brought high school students into the laboratories of UCLA researchers to experience scientific discovery for themselves. 
Group of high school students
2023 Cohort of UCLA Physiology Outreach Program Students (Courtesy of UCLA POP)

Most students experience scientific discovery through the stories of scientists in textbooks, or through experiments from a predetermined class curriculum.

Through the Physiology Outreach Program at UCLA, however, students have the opportunity to experience scientific discovery for themselves.

For nearly 15 years, the program has brought students from the local community into the professional labs of UCLA researchers over the summer to foster a spark for curiosity and research.

Led by two researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine, Baljit Khakh, PhD, and Thomas Vondriska, PhD, the program mentors 8-10 students in hands-on scientific research per year.

Dr. Khakh discovered his own interest in experimental work after attending a public lecture on memory as a teenager in the UK. Upon arriving at UCLA 18 years ago, he saw a need for scientific research opportunities to be accessible to high school students, particularly from underserved areas of LA, and started the program alongside Vondriska. Khakh and Vondriska believe high school outreach should be a key part of making opportunities for scientific and career growth available to all members of the community, regardless of socioeconomic background.

“Our goal is to clarify how science works,” explains Dr. Vondriska, Professor of Anesthesiology, Medicine, and Physiology at UCLA, and director of the Vondriska Lab investigating the interface between epigenetics and cardiovascular disease.

“Many of the steps for how things get into textbooks, how we learn and come to know things can be extraordinarily vague,” he says. “When one can experience what it’s like to not know something – and then to be the first person in the world to learn that very small thing – it is incredibly rewarding.”

Though many students may not go on to be practicing scientists, the program aims to teach students the process of scientific discovery.

“It’s a small impact, but we take it seriously,” says Dr. Khakh. As a Professor of Physiology and Neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, he is director of a diverse team of scientists researching the role of astrocytes in neural circuits and disease.

Sparking the joy of discovery

Students share their research interests in a personal statement when applying to the program and are matched with faculty members from the Departments of Physiology, Anesthesiology, and Medicine at DGSOM.

They then meet with their assigned principal investigators to design and tailor their lab experience. “The best experiences have placed students in labs at critical points in their research, so they can be there when key results are obtained,” says Dr. Khakh. “That’s the spark we’d like for them to experience.”

Under the guidance of lab researchers, students take part in and contribute to ongoing studies.

“The laboratory is a very different learning environment than a class,” Dr. Khakh explains. To be successful in class, you need to attend lectures, take notes, and study. In the lab, taking notes alone won’t allow you to develop as a scientist.

“Going home thinking about your experiments, reading papers to prepare, asking the right questions, and being present in the lab where things happen,” are critical skills students are mentored to develop.

Every Friday, the program invites guest speakers across careers in research and health sciences to meet with the students and share their journeys. From PhD students to nurses and practicing physicians, students have the opportunity to learn from several types of science professionals.

At the end of the four weeks, students prepare and present a brief summary on their research to the rest of their cohort.

“In four weeks, students get so engaged in the work, they feel a real ownership of it,” says Dr. Vondriska, “It’s really rewarding to see how they catch the thrill of scientific research.”

For high school senior Prabhas Kolluri, participating in the program confirmed a true passion for medical research.

As a student in Dr. Vondriska’s lab last summer, he contributed to several ongoing studies, performing biomedical research techniques many high school students only get to read about, including Western blots, gel electrophoresis, and complex dissections.

The Vondriska Lab at UCLA
For high school senior Prabhas Kolluri (center), working with the Vondriska Lab inspired a true passion for research. (Courtesy of UCLA POP)

Kolluri thought being the youngest student in an advanced laboratory might be intimidating, but the members of Vondriska’s lab immediately welcomed him to the team.

“They set me up for success,” Kolluri says. “They gave me my own lab coat, work bench, pipettes, showed me where the snacks were, and took me along on their adventures. Small things like that made me feel like I was a part of the lab.”

Inspired by his experience in the program and his colleagues, Kolluri has applied to several undergraduate programs in research, intending to pursue a dual BS-MD.

“One of the researchers in my lab, Dr. Matt Fischer, is both a cardiac anesthesiologist and a researcher,” Kolluri says. “He gave me tips on how to manage my time and showed me it’s possible to pursue both passions.”

Inspiring the next generation of researchers

Like Kolluri, many graduates of the program have gone on to pursue medicine and scientific research.

“We try to keep in touch with our students over the years,” Dr. Vondriska says. He cites the example of a recent medical resident interviewing in the DGSOM who started out as a member of the Physiology Outreach Program.

Another alumnus of the program, he continues, is now a cardiology fellow at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

To the UCLA researchers, mentoring students in the process of scientific discovery is an annual highlight, and also part of fulfilling a broader duty, says Dr. Vondriska.

“We pursue careers in academia because we’re passionate about basic scientific discovery, but also because we’re passionate about education and teaching.”

Looking forward, Dr. Khakh and Dr. Vondriska aim to grow the program by broadening its reach to more schools and more research departments across UCLA.

“Every student is placed individually in a lab, which allows them to receive personalized attention in their mentorship, and encourages them to step up and make the most out of their experience,” Dr. Khakh says.

Endowing the program with financial support would also enhance the resources the program could provide to students and their schools, for example by engaging teachers alongside their students in the lab experience.

“It is a great privilege to be able to do research,” says Dr. Khakh, “to be able to take that privilege and share the spirit of discovery with young people is our collective calling.”

Take the Next Step

Applications for the upcoming summer open in early spring. Interested students are encouraged to speak with their science teachers and/or school principals.