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Published: July 17, 2013

High School Students Experiment at UT

Cameron McKenzie’s first summer job wasn’t bagging groceries or helping with summer camps at the YMCA. The high school junior was working with Assistant Professor Glenroy "Dean" Martin to discover new natural products to treat diseases.

“This is cutting-edge research,” said Martin. “The students do the research, they learn with equipment far better than what’s available in their high school labs and we get the lab results. It’s a win-win situation.”

Martin is both coordinator and mentor for the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED program, in which talented but underserved high school students conduct research with him over the summer to gain research experience. The eight- to 10-week paid positions include career counseling with UT’s Career Services and a field trip and tour of the Moffitt Cancer Center.

“You have to give them more attention than college students, and there is an initial investment of time,” said Martin, who has been involved with Project SEED for five years, the most recent three at UT. “But this is reciprocating the love. When I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I had mentors who pushed me.”

Martin was offered a research opportunity one summer as an undergraduate, and what he once considered his worst subject became his passion.

“A light bulb went off,” he said, when he discovered the practical applications of chemistry and medicine.

With his two students this summer, Martin is working with the ingredient in curry — curcumin — which has cancer prevention properties. In the lab, Martin creates similar structures to the natural product, called analogs, through biotransformation using microorganisms to do the work for him. With one of his previous students who is now in college, Martin found a natural product to treat breast cancer. He said it can be like finding a needle in the haystack, but he loves the search.

High school senior Monica Moore learned that curcumin stains one’s hands quickly and remains there for two days, she said laughing. Moore wants to major in biomedical science and become a veterinarian.

“I love these experiments,” she said. “I’m always curious about everything.”

McKenzie took AP chemistry this past year and didn’t want to forget everything he learned over the summer. Project SEED gave him a chance to complete experiments he never had the chance or the time to do.

“I like the math part of chemistry, but also the hands-on working with different chemicals,” said McKenzie, who is considering chemical engineering.
Martin enjoys the interactions and gets to know the students well, especially if they return for a second year of research.

“You form really strong bonds with these students,” Martin said. “Just to see the joy on their faces, it’s worth it.”

Read more about Martin's work in the Spring 2013 UT Journal article, "Reaching Out."

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