KEYS Program Pairs Young Scientists With UA Research Mentors
Nothing compares to the hands-on lab experience, say the high school students, many of whom decide to continue their studies as undergraduates at the UA.

BIO5 Institute
July 31, 2017


At KEYS, Eric Oum worked in the lab of Dr. Anita Koshy studying the effects of aging on the immune response to Toxoplasma gondii infection. Here, he presents his research poster at the KEYS Showcase.
At KEYS, Eric Oum worked in the lab of Dr. Anita Koshy studying the effects of aging on the immune response to Toxoplasma gondii infection. Here, he presents his research poster at the KEYS Showcase.

Things are moving quickly for incoming University of Arizona freshman Eric Oum, and that seems to be the way he likes it.

Oum came to the United States from Cameroon only five years ago and graduated from Tucson's Palo Verde High School in May. And now, thanks to the KEYS Research Internship Program at the UA, he has lab experience as he embarks on a major in biomedical engineering.

This summer, Oum was among four dozen high school students selected from nearly 150 applicants to take part in the 11th annual KEYS program, one of the state's premier pathways for developing STEM skills in pre-college students. The seven-week free program, which concluded on July 21, drew from a cross-section of southern Arizona high schools, in addition to schools in Tuba City, Scottsdale, Phoenix, Tempe, Chandler, Glendale and Cave Creek.

"Nothing — and I'll say it again, nothing — I had learned up to a couple of weeks ago could've prepared me to work in a lab," Oum said. "There is no textbook, no test and definitely no class that has taught me how to look at certain situations and engineer a way to take on that challenge. That's not something that can be taught through equations and lectures. It's a skill one can only develop through experience — something I definitely did not have."

KEYS began with nine interns in 2007. The program has now seen 378 Arizona teens — at least half of them from backgrounds traditionallly underrepresented in science careers — complete internships in bioscience, biomedicine, engineering, environmental health or biostatistics and contribute to ongoing research projects across the UA. Students receive three academic credits for their participation.

"My goal in joining KEYS was to gain more research experience (along with) the tools and knowledge needed to bring my ideas to life," Oum said. "And even though there are moments when I am defeated, and feel like I was never meant to be a scientist, there's always that magic moment at the end of the day when I regain my confidence. As I walk out of the lab and head out of the BIO5 building, I look at the sign that says 'Medical Research Building' and remember that everything I'm doing in that lab, whether big or small, has a greater purpose."

In the fall, Oum will continue in the lab of his KEYS research mentor, Dr. Anita Koshy, for independent study academic credit.

During the course of the KEYS immersion program, interns train in bioscience techniques and communication skills and perform hands-on scientific research, working side-by-side with faculty and postdoctoral and graduate students on projects being conducted in UA labs. At the close of the program, the interns present what they have learned to friends, family and the academic community at a public research showcase.

Projects included creating better ways to detect and treat disease, exploring the effect of contaminated water sources on population and the environment, studying the impact of plants and animals on ecosystems, and analyzing the role genes play in human health.

The UA's BIO5 Institute is home to KEYS, with program coordination shared by BIO5 and the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center. Community, alumni and campus supporters — including all five of BIO5's foundational colleges, as well as the Honors College — help fund the program. 

"We are proud to lead the outstanding team that brings this program to life every year," said Lisa Romero, senior director of public affairs and engagement for BIO5. "It is inherent in BIO5's mission to develop unique programs that engage and inspire our next generation of scientists, and KEYS is now a national model for how to do this effectively, even at the pre-college stage.

"In addition, program data has proven that experiential learning opportunities like KEYS, which allow top-performing students to spend quality time on campus and work in labs while still in high school, are far more likely to create compelling reasons for them be excited about returning as undergraduates."

KEYS alumni data show that of those who are now college age, 54 percent currently attend the UA. Of those students, 83 percent are pursuing a STEM-related degree.

Two recent examples are Zcheecid Aguirre and Stanley Wong, 2016 KEYS alumni who graduated with honors from their respective high schools this past spring and are set to begin at the UA in a few weeks. They are two of only 20 of Arizona's highest-achieving high school seniors to be awarded the 2017 Flinn Scholarship, a highly competitive, merit-based award for undergraduate study at an Arizona public university.

New to the program in 2017 was an enhanced partnership with the UA Honors College. Automatic Honors College admission was offered to each student who successfully completed KEYS.

According to Jennifer Barton, interim director of BIO5 and a faculty mentor to students in almost every KEYS cohort since 2007: "The top KEYS programmatic goal is to give students hands-on research experiences with real-world application that spark scientific curiosity and discovery, which can play a huge role in helping them decide whether to pursue science careers. For many students, this will be the first time they are exposed to science outside of a textbook and are able to interact with scientists as real people."

Other success stories from the KEYS Class of 2017 included:

  • Kailee Savage, a junior at Canyon del Oro High School, who was invited by her KEYS faculty mentor to stay on as an intern during her senior year. "Prior to this program, I thought research was boring," Savage said. "All it was to me was long hours and repetition. I knew that I needed a job that kept me on my feet and that kept me engaged, but my main goal was to help people, so I decided to give research a try. I figured that (in a) worst-case scenario, I had some good things to add to my resume. Now I can say that I wasn't entirely wrong. Research is long hours, hard work, repetition and so exhausting. However, it is NOT boring. I found myself wanting to work crazy hours because I wanted to be a part of the results we got."
  • Emilie Shin, a senior at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, who is the sibling of a 2013 KEYS alumnus, Edward Shin. Edward is majoring in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Their parents immigrated to the U.S. from Korea. "KEYS is great because we have individual mentors to work one-on-one with us," Emilie said. "I feel like I'm being treated like a mature young adult — unlike in high school, where we just get a specific set of instructions to do something where we're not sure of the reason behind it. However, here I feel like I'm actually making a contribution to science and the world, as my lab work is actually going to save lives by providing malnourished children with the beta-carotene they need."
  • Tissiana Vallecillo, a senior at BASIS Chandler High School, who is the sibling of a 2016 KEYS alumna, Renata Vallecillo. Renata will attend the UA in the fall as a molecular and cellular biology major. Tissiana was invited by her KEYS faculty mentor to continue in her lab. "A very important part of KEYS is that it puts you in situations that are unlikely for someone your age," Tissiana said. "At first, I only recognized that as a privilege for the experiences I was able to have. However, as I encountered the culture of my lab, I realized that KEYS also put me in these situations so that I could explore my ability to create a role for myself. I am now confident that I can lead myself to unlikely opportunities and succeed in them."

Extra info

KEYS Research Internship Program

  • Applications received in 2017: 146
  • Number of high schools across Arizona reflected in applications: 40
  • Students accepted into program: 48
  • Average GPA: unweighted 3.91, weighted 4.38
  • KEYS alumni now attending one of Arizona's three public universities: 63% (majority at UA)
  • KEYS alumni at UA pursuing STEM-related degrees: 83%
  • UA faculty participation: More than 120 have mentored KEYS interns since 2007

To learn more about the KEYS Research Internship Program, visit To support the KEYS program or contribute to the KEYS to the Future Endowment, visit KEYS giving options.

KEYS dates for 2018: June 4 through July 20


Resources for the media

Lisa Romero

BIO5 Institute