Lauren Killingsworth, a recent high school graduate, already has an impressive resume of stem cell research that may contribute to future treatments for blindness. Out of the lab, she is making a difference in the lives of both students in her community and people with visual impairments. For this Stanford-bound scientist, science is the key to the unknown, and doing hands-on science, she believes, is the key to engaging more students with STEM.For Lauren Killingsworth, this year's winner of the Ron Mardigian essay contest sponsored by Bio-Rad Laboratories, the process of doing hands-on science experimentation and research is one that brims with excitement and possibility, a kind of magic that often ends up suppressed in traditional textbook-based education. In her winning essay, the recent graduate from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, CA. poignantly articulates the importance of hands-on science education in engaging students with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Lauren's winning essay opens by capturing and sharing a pivotal moment during one of her own research projects, the kind of moment she wishes all students had the chance to experience. The gap between actively doing science and reading about science is something she has set out to change for students in her community.
Exploring Biomedical Research
In recent summers, Lauren has conducted research at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. "I worked on stem cell research, specifically developing retinal neurons from stem cells," she explains. "My interest in stem cell biology was actually sparked by a lecture I attended at Stanford University when I was little. It was part of the 'Splash' program taught by Stanford students, and I remember being astounded to learn that cells, tissues, and even organs could be regenerated using stem cell biology. The medical applications of this technology were so promising, and I wanted to get involved."
At the Buck Institute, Lauren worked on projects that investigate the possibility of restoring vision to the blind. The "Assessment of Lineage Conversion to Neural Retina Fate" project "focused on converting human fibroblasts directly to retinal neurons, by infecting fibroblasts with viruses that cause expression of transcription factors." Another project involved "assessing whether or not the small molecule IWR-1 can replace the human recombinant protein Dkk-1 in developing induced pluripotent stem cells."
Making a Difference for the Visually Impaired
Outside of the lab, Lauren's interest in eye and blindness research takes humanitarian shape in the work she and her family does training service dogs. "I've been raising Guide Dogs for the Blind since 6th grade," says Lauren, "and it has been a very formative experience for me. It is incredibly fulfilling to see the bond and trust between a guide dog and his or her visually impaired partner, and I feel blessed to play a part in the process."
Service dogs make a dramatic difference in the lives of their companions, but Lauren says that her work with Guide Dogs for the Blind has also inspired her science research on blindness. "While guide dogs provide a tremendous service to the visually impaired, I envision a world where science research can provide medical cures to blindness-related diseases," says Lauren. "I hope to work with the organization Unite for Sight in college, and partake in an international mission where I would volunteer in an eye clinic in Ghana," she adds.
Science for Everyone
While at Tamalpais High, Lauren implemented a student mentoring program between her high school and Martin Luther King (MLK) Academy. Initially, the program provided tutoring in all subjects, especially math. The program has since evolved into a science-focused outreach effort to meet the need Lauren saw to create stronger opportunities to connect and engage students with science.
"Today, the program is mainly hands-on science labs," says Lauren. "Next year, students will be matched to high school tutors so that they can each conduct their own science fair project!"
The program recently received a youth service grant from ABC News and Disney. Lauren says this funding will help sustain and grow the program in coming years as other high school students step into her role and continue the student service program.
A Top Science Student
Like many young scientists, Lauren was a busy high school student. In addition to being a school leader, a member of the volleyball team, a trainer of service dogs, a volunteer at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, a student mentor, and recipient of an MIT Science Leadership Award, she has also been an active science fair participant—the only one, she says, from her high school.
"The science fair has been a big part of my school years," says Lauren. "In 10th grade, I won 1st place at the Marin Science Fair in Life Sciences for my project on decreasing oral bacteria by brushing the tongue. I also won 3rd at the SF Bay Area Science Fair." As a senior, she won the Grand Prize at the Marin County Science Fair (and 4th place in the SF Bay Area Science Fair) for research on development of retinal neurons.
Next year, Lauren will be attending Stanford University. "I am really looking forward to learning about exciting new topics—from biotechnology, to stem cell biology, to multivariable calculus," says Lauren. Lauren plans to study biology, with an emphasis on cell and molecular biology, neurobiology, or immunology. In the future, she hopes to combine her interests in medicine and science research, possibly in the area of veterinary science, a continuation of her work with animals and a career she says she dreamed of as a child.
Building upon the interest in community service projects and science education she demonstrated in high school, Lauren says, "I hope to incorporate service into whichever career I choose—whether continuing my efforts in science education or participating in a program such as Doctors without Borders, or—the veterinary equivalent—World Vets. I am also very interested in global health and development, and I look forward to spending a quarter abroad to acquire a more international perspective on medicine."
The full text of Lauren's winning essay appears below.
By Lauren Killingsworth
I peer into the microscope, eager to discover if my hypothesis holds true. I focus the lens until the image becomes defined: intricate, web-like projections that stem from neuronal cell bodies. I experience a moment of revelation. After weeks of cell culture, it had emerged: the evasive photoreceptor, the light-sensing neuron of the eye. Under the microscope, vibrant gene-expression markers dot the culture dish—evidence that this cell can potentially restore vision.
That moment between a scientist's hypothesis and nature's answer is unforgettable. The process of experimentation—trial and error, questioning, and analysis—is rewarding at every step. That experience, however, was foreign to me until I became involved in hands-on laboratory research. Throughout middle school and high school, science had been presented as a strictly linear subject—one seemingly void of creativity and imagination. My excitement for topics such as DNA replication and cellular respiration was diluted by textbook readings. Labs had pre-ordained outcomes, with little room to manipulate variables or design studies myself. I sought greater autonomy and freedom for exploration: what I believe to be vital elements in any science curriculum.
Last year, when I began tutoring students at a local middle school, I noticed a concerning apathy—and even resentment—towards science. I identified with these students' frustration over the lack of hands-on science opportunities, and I began brainstorming possible ways to spark their interest in science. I remember working with one student, Torrey, who was frustrated by the obscurity of the black-and-white pH paper diagrams in his chemistry textbook. He explained that he had never done a science lab before nor used actual pH paper. Science, a study of hands-on experimentation and discovery, had been confined to textbooks and worksheets.
I set out to bring science to Torrey's classroom, confident that these students would enjoy the subject in a stimulating environment where they could manipulate materials and test hypotheses themselves. I created the Tam High-MLK Science Outreach Program, through which I gained a better understanding of how to best promote interest in science. My program required creativity; I declared my back porch a laboratory, producing steaming geysers of foam as I found the optimal ratio of hydrogen peroxide to potassium-iodide for an upcoming lab. One lab was particularly memorable: upon creating a foaming, exothermic reaction, Torrey was so excited that he asked to repeat the experiment.
In designing curriculum and teaching hands-on labs, I saw the importance of allowing students to experiment for themselves. By providing students with the freedom to adjust variables, they asked more questions and became engaged. Demonstrations with a big "Wow" factor also proved successful. The "Wow" factor: an explosive, loud, or colorful reaction, showed students that science was visible, fast-paced, and exciting. The element of surprise was also important. I found that students were more excited to conduct the chemical reaction when they didn't know what to expect, allowing students to wonder why the reaction occurred, rather than concentrate on whether they got "the right result." Additionally, experiments that focused on science applications in every day life—such as the "Household Acids and Bases" lab—showed students that science was relevant, and encouraged students to ask scientific questions about the environment around them.
To increase participation in science, hands-on science needs to become more accessible, students should be given autonomy in conducting experiments, and students need to feel supported and confident as they enter what some may view a daunting field. Additionally, it is imperative that the science research community becomes more diverse. As a woman in science, I have experienced the gender imbalance firsthand, as one of only 3 women in my 20-person AP Chemistry class, and the only woman in the science lab I work in. This can be intimidating to many female students, and must be addressed—by marketing children's science kits and engineering toys to girls as well as boys, through internship and science programs that reach out to young women, and through mentorship by female scientists.
I envision classroom environments that ignite interest in science by entrusting students with the design of their own projects and by introducing students to advanced laboratory techniques. This can be accomplished by mandating that science fair projects are included in school curriculum, providing students with science mentors, demonstrating to students that science is applicable to everyday life, and—most importantly—emphasizing the idea that the only prerequisite for science is curiosity.