By Bar Yosef
Megan Chappell was in high school when her uncle was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). She set out to learn more about the disease but had trouble understanding the scientific literature. This motivated her to reach out to a University of Virginia neuroscience lab focused on MS, where she started volunteering as a high school research assistant.
“I really think that those early years in research as a high schooler completely shaped my view of what a career in research would look like, and that’s how I found my passion for neuroscience when I was sixteen working in this lab,” says Chappell, now a neuroscience PhD candidate at UCLA.
Megan’s time as a research assistant inspired her to create CELL Scholars, a science outreach program. CELL stands for Cultivating Early Laboratory Learning
Megan’s time as a research assistant inspired her to create CELL Scholars, a science outreach program. CELL stands for Cultivating Early Laboratory Learning. The program, with funding from the UCLA Brain Research Institute (BRI), provides scholarship sponsored research opportunities for high school students from underrepresented backgrounds. Chappell founded the program with UCLA graduate students Abinaya Muthusamy, Carolyn Amir, and Douglas Vormstein-Schneider. The four spent a year building the program and launched their first cohort of students in October of 2022. Students in their junior year are paired with a graduate student or staff research mentor who guides them through a research project with weekly hands-on training in laboratory techniques and remote work outside of the lab, such as reading papers or analyzing data. The first cohort was composed of three students from University High School in Los Angeles who spent the past school year doing research in UCLA neuroscience labs.
Nylah Jordan, a high school junior and one of the current CELL Scholars mentees, values the hands-on research experience she’s received in the program. She says she’s been surprised by how she can “shape [research] in [her] own way and take control of [her] own projects.” A major takeaway Nylah has gotten from the program is that she “can delve further into things that interest [her] both in CELL Scholars and generally.” Working alongside graduate students and faculty in a university research lab has allowed her to reflect that in college, “you really need to prioritize your goals and things that are important to you.”
Nylah is working with Dylan Hughes, a Staff Research Associate at UCLA who will begin the UCLA Clinical Psychology graduate program this year. Dylan and Nylah are working on a research project investigating the influence of social media usage on cognitive function. The project began with Dylan and Nylah asking the broad question of how sleep impacts brain function, and Nylah has developed the details of the study based on her interests. She is collecting data at her school by administering cognitive assessments and using apps that track participants’ cellphone usage. Nylah wanted to apply the computational skills she has developed from her AP Computer Science class and is working with Dylan to use R, a statistical programming language, to analyze her data.
“I think there’s a lot of barriers to entry in science in a lot of different places throughout your career. I think high school is a good time to try to target those barriers because more opportunities can come from it than if you target at a later time point”
For Dylan, mentoring a high school student provides an opportunity to promote equity in science. “I think there’s a lot of barriers to entry in science in a lot of different places throughout your career. I think high school is a good time to try to target those barriers because more opportunities can come from it than if you target at a later time point,” says Dylan.
Accessibility is a priority for the program. Reflecting on her pre-college research, Chappell explained, “I really wanted to create a program that would create that same sort of high school student research opportunity, but I also recognize that a lot of those opportunities come from a place of privilege. High school students who work in labs at these big R01 universities usually have connections to kind of get into those labs. So one of our main goals with CELL Scholars was to create these same sort[s] of opportunities but for students from underrepresented backgrounds who maybe need help getting into these positions.” The program is structured around being accessible to students of all social classes. Unpaid work is a stepping stone into a career in STEM, which fosters socioeconomic inequality. Volunteering is often only an option for those who can afford it. CELL Scholars mitigates this barrier to entry by providing a scholarship to mentees, free transportation to UCLA, and a meal through a collaboration with UCLA Swipe Out Hunger.
A unique feature of the program is that the research projects continue for up to two years. This allows students to not only work on a project from start to finish but also become integrated into their lab community. Chappell hopes that mentees build connections with their graduate student mentors and faculty advisors. The main goals of CELL Scholars are to support the college aspirations of the mentees and to give them an opportunity to explore potential career paths. “I think a lot of students are taught in school that if you’re interested in science then you have to become a medical doctor or there’s no other way to enter science, but there’s so many different career paths outside of medical school and also even research itself. We know that there are tons of different careers in science from things like science communication, science policy, so we hope we can expose them to a couple of different options and help them think about what they might want to work towards,” says Chappell.
“… a lot of students are taught in school that if you’re interested in science then you have to become a medical doctor or there’s no other way to enter science, but there’s so many different career paths outside of medical school and also even research itself”
CELL Scholars is also exposing high school students to science communication skill development and careers in STEM through workshops held at local high schools. CELL Scholars hosted its first workshop this spring at University High School in which students were introduced to broad topics in neuroscience. The program is collaborating with Knowing Neurons to host several workshops at University High School through a project funded by the National Science Policy Network’s LUV Grant.
The three students comprising the first cohort of CELL Scholars are continuing their research projects next school year. This past spring, the program also recruited three new students to join the inaugural cohort. Moving forward, Chappell envisions expanding the program to more high schools, especially those in underserved areas of Los Angeles. She also hopes to include academic disciplines beyond neuroscience in order to accommodate students’ diverse research interests. As the program grows and the mentees graduate high school and beyond, it will be exciting to see the impact CELL Scholars has on its students and on STEM.
Written by Bar Yosef
Illustrated by Nadia Penkofflidbeck
Edited by Zoë Dobler, Keionna Newton, and Gabrielle Sarlo