Shine@DU Program Connects Denver Public School Students With DU Labs
A pair of faculty members at the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics are working to change to narratives around working in university labs at a young age.
Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry Brady Worrell can remember his youth working in labs, making connections through family to find opportunities. Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biophysics Allegra Aron recalls not seeing many women when she was first breaking into scientific research, and those she did encounter really stood out.
Together, they spearheaded a grant-funded program called Shine@DU, which connected six Denver Public School students with summer lab opportunities at the University of Denver.
“One of the things Allegra and I talked about during the orientation was that we both had internships in high school working in science,” Worrell says. “It’s fair to say that those experiences were fundamental to what our careers ended up being.
“This program was an easy way to get a bunch of kids from DPS—which is very diverse—into some type of scientific program. Usually, the way that this is predicated is that somebody’s mom knows a professor and that professor says, ‘Yeah, you can be in my lab.’ It’s this one-off thing based off a relationship. This is a program with continuity that takes some of that out of the process. You don’t need that cronyism to get into science, which I think favors males and people of a higher socioeconomic class.”
The students were paid hourly for their work on internships—an advantage Worrell and Aron say they didn’t have when they were young—and RTD passes were provided to those who needed it.
Aron says Worrell started the program, and she joined on when she saw the opportunity to “democratize science.”
“I was particularly excited that the student group for this program was female-heavy,” Aron says, alluding to two-thirds of the group identifying as females. “I really care about getting more women into STEM. As a woman in STEM myself, it was gratifying to hear in these interviews that the students would say, ‘Oh, there aren’t many professors who sound like you.’
“That was powerful to hear because if you can’t see yourself in that career, it’s rare that someone goes that way. When I was in my high school internship, my mentor was a woman, and that made me believe I had opportunities in this space.”
The students participated in a variety of lab work and were present as their schedules allowed. Worrell says certain students took more of an interest than others, but multiple interns are clearly pursuing a career in a STEM field.
One unexpected twist, however, was that it was the first formal job for many of the students involved. Teenagers had their first experience filling out onboarding paperwork, for example, or setting up direct deposits.
“Those small ambitions are important, too,” Worrell says. “We’re probably going to be more mom-and-dad style walking them over to fill out paperwork, teaching them to set up direct deposits. Yeah, we’re teaching them how to run columns, purify organic compounds, polymerize things. But both of those things are important to figuring out how all of this works.”
One of the most satisfying moments of the program for Worrell was when he picked up his own kids from daycare and dropped them off at home, only to realize he had forgotten his bag and computer on campus.
Returning to the lab around 8 p.m., he encountered one of the students.
“I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’m just getting a few more samples for my presentation.’
“I’m a pretty cynical person, but I think my heart grew three sizes that day.”