Students in Greensburg, PA, GASP at the possibility of careers in science

The year is 2012. A high school student in Greensburg, PA, desperately wants to become a scientist and decides to complete a scientific research project before she graduates to gain research experience. Since her school offers no scientific research opportunities for students, she completes the work completely independently. Not only is she the only student in her graduating class to do a science-related graduation project, but she has few opportunities to present her work, network with other scientists, or receive any recognition from the greater scientific community.

Flash forward five years and that same high school student is now a PhD student. She sees how limited her educational opportunities were compared with other students in her PhD cohort, and she cannot help but notice how few of her high school classmates were able to finish college degrees let alone continue on to graduate school. She recognizes the disparity, and she starts taking steps to try to fix it.

Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that the high school student in that story is me.  I graduated from Greensburg Salem High School in Greensburg, PA, a small town about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. After enrolling in a PhD program in 2016, I wanted to give back to the community where I grew up and make sure that current and future students would have more opportunities than I did.

Lilly Kosoglow, a 2021 science fair participant, holds up vials of algae that she used for her project to evaluate the effects of different environmental conditions on algae growth.

The annual GASP science fair is open to the public and gives students an opportunity to try out research for themselves while networking with professional scientists and competing for prizes to reward their efforts. Unlike most traditional science fairs in which students complete projects independently, the GASP science fair directly integrates student participants into the greater scientific community by assigning each science fair group a mentor. Mentors are typically graduate students, and they serve as a direct point of contact for science fair participants to ask for help as they design their projects, troubleshoot experimental procedures, and create their final poster presentations.

Each year, the science fair is a celebration of science and inquiry. Attendees typically include members of local groups that support GASP, such as the Kiwanis Club of Greensburg, as well as mentors supporting their students, including professors and postdoctoral fellows who judge submissions. Although the student presenters often start out nervous and unsure, they invariably end the event relaxed and confident in their abilities to communicate science.

Sebastian Echeverri, PhD, a 2019 science fair mentor, shows science fair attendees a video of spider behavior.

The GASP science fair has grown each year, from just a handful of students from Greensburg Salem High School in its first pilot year (sponsored in part by an American Society for Cell Biology COMPASS Outreach grant), to 25 students in the most recent year including high school and middle school students from multiple school districts. The event has also expanded to include multiple workshops to help students complete their projects, with topics including how to design an experiment, how to perform literature searches, how to perform basic statistical analyses, and how to design a professional poster presentation.

After just three years of GASP events, students are already demonstrating the impacts of their participation in field trips, guest lectures, and the science fair. After participating, students have reached out to organize further individual exploration of science careers through job shadowing and more extensive research projects. Those opportunities were available to interested students as a direct result of the contacts in the scientific community they established through the science fair. Participants have also expressed through surveys and conversations with teachers that they are more excited about the possibility of jobs in science and better understand the process of becoming a scientist.

As GASP programs continue to grow and evolve, more students from the Greensburg area will realize that they can pursue careers in science. More local scientists will have a snowball effect by making careers in science more visible and therefore within reach to local students. In the long term, the scientific community will benefit from an influx of individuals from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and in the short term, increasingly more graduate student mentors will also be able to hone their mentorship skills. A small community science program, although modest in scope, can have a big impact on community inhabitants. I hope that GASP can serve as a model for such programs in small cities countrywide to help make science accessible to all.

About the Author:

Amanda Kowalczyk is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Computational and Systems Biology. She recently earned her PhD in computational biology with a genomics specialization from the University of Pittsburgh under advisement from Maria Chikina and Nathan Clark. She is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Clark and Chikina labs prior to transitioning to a postdoctoral fellow position at Carnegie Mellon University supported by its Neuroscience Institute under the co-advisement of Andreas Pfenning and Alison Barth. Amanda has spent most of her research career building and using computational tools to analyze genomic data, with authorship on papers published in Science, eLife, MBE, and Bioinformatics. Outside of her research, she greatly enjoys teaching a variety of topics related to coding, statistics, and genomics.