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Local Teens, UMSL Faculty Turn Scrambled Lab Plans Into Collaborative COVID-19 Study

A year ago, high school student Dakota Warren could often be found in the backyard of biologist Patty Parker, catching birds in an effort to get blood samples. When she wasn’t in Parker’s yard, she was busy in Parker’s lab at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, conducting DNA research with those samples.

This summer, Warren planned to return to Parker’s lab, but then the pandemic hit. And like most people with any plans for 2020, Parker and her teenage interns had to rethink theirs, moving in recent weeks to a scaled-back, virtual version of the Collaborative Laboratory Internships and Mentoring Blueprint.

Jennings High School 2020 graduate Dakota Warren (at right) is headed to the University of Missouri-St. Louis this fall after conducting research under the guidance of faculty member Patty Parker (at left).
August Jennewein | UMSL
Jennings High School 2020 graduate Dakota Warren (at right) is headed to the University of Missouri-St. Louis this fall after conducting research under the guidance of faculty member Patty Parker (at left).

Over the past five years, CLIMB’s paid internships have sought to expand opportunities for disadvantaged students through full-time, hands-on research experience. Parker, the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Biology at UMSL, spearheaded the partnership following the 2014 Ferguson protests in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown.

For Warren, who graduated this spring from Jennings High School as its salutatorian, this summer’s iteration of CLIMB still proved valuable. Instead of studying bird populations and avian malaria, Warren and several of her fellow interns were tasked with researching previous pandemics and how they relate to COVID-19. Other groups of interns looked into the health-related and socioeconomic factors contributing to the coronavirus’ harsh impact on predominantly African American communities. Many of them live in similar communities in north St. Louis County.

Warren’s classmate Serenatee Simpson, who plans to major in biology at UMSL this fall, focused her efforts on the connections between COVID-19, strokes and high blood pressure. She said that the experience, along with “amazing teachers” at Jennings High School, have her already learning to think like a scientist.

“I had to do a lot of research [with existing sources], but then I also had to think … you have to think and brainstorm on your own,” Simpson explained. “And you can take from different parts and places, but you also have to make it your own.”

The teens’ final presentations late last month — conducted via Zoom — were attended by high school and university administrators from around the region. The interns fielded plenty of questions and kudos afterward.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Warren and Parker joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at their efforts and how the CLIMB program seeks to expand horizons for St. Louis youth.

For Parker, Brown’s death in August 2014 proved to be a wakeup call about the opportunity gaps right in the university’s own backyard.

“I remember the day that he was shot — I was up at UMSL — it was a Saturday,” she recalled. “And UMSL is in north St. Louis [County], and at that time in my career I was spending most of my research effort going to the Galapagos Islands and mentoring students who were studying in faraway places rather than spending my efforts here closer to home. And that event was very motivating for me.”

A biology teacher at Jennings High, UMSL alumnus Remy Bryant, also reached out to Parker shortly afterward, inviting her to join the school’s advisory committee for the Lead the Way, STEM-focused project.

“All the rest of this was borne out of that relationship,” Parker said.

She added that early on, it became clear that the CLIMB internships needed to be paid, full-time endeavors for the local teens to make the most of the program, which is primarily funded by an anonymous St. Louisan, with additional support from Trio Foundation of St. Louis.

“These are students who themselves are often contributing importantly to the income of the household they are in,” Parker said. “And so they need to work in the summer, and offering unpaid internships to students who really need to work is really not going to go anywhere.”

Warren, who plans to major in psychology as a freshman at UMSL this fall with plans to pursue medicine, said the CLIMB program has been a game changer, along with opportunities at Jennings High.

“I think the [moment when everything clicked] was when we finally were able to give our final presentations to all of our parents and friends and family,” Warren said, “and when they finally saw what we were doing over the past few weeks. … You can see that they understand what it took you weeks to finally learn. Because it’s really sometimes difficult scientific processes that you have to learn step by step. And I think it’s nice just to see them fully comprehend what you’ve been able to do and achieve.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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