IBB Summer Academy draws many students back to Rice for good

No substitute for experience
IBB Summer Academy draws many students back to Rice for good

Rice News staff

Once high school students get a taste of life at Rice, why would they apply anywhere else?

That’s how a host of young scholars felt after participating in Rice’s Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering (IBB) Summer Academy, a program that introduces high school juniors to the college experience at a tier-one research institution.

Charles Walper stands by his poster on “Tissue Engineering an Artificial Bone Marrow Environment” during his time at the IBB Summer Academy in 2009. Walper, who worked in the lab of Rice professor and academy director Jennifer West, is now a student at Rice.

As the program prepares to mark its 20th anniversary next year, it has something else to celebrate: the number of former participants who have matriculated at Rice. The academy is not intended to be a recruiting tool, but of the 80 or so students to pass through the summer program in 2008 and 2009, 10 of them are now freshmen or sophomores at Rice.

“The summer academy is what made me choose Rice,” confirmed Charlie Walper, who plans to study mechanical engineering. “I didn’t bother applying anywhere else — despite many friends trying to convince me otherwise.

“I fell in love with the university and its vision while I was here and made it my only choice,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about Rice before the summer academy — or any other university for that matter. The summer academy is what changed my ‘plan’ of just attending the local university.”

“The summer academy played a huge role in my college decision,” said Ian Kretz, who expects to major in mathematics and physics. “Before the academy I had certainly considered Rice as a college option, but I was set on Stanford. After the summer academy, I was hooked on Rice, so much so that when the time came, I never even began the Stanford application.”

Participants get to work with Rice researchers and members of their laboratories, who guide them through the planning and practice of research experiments and activities. The two-week sessions includes lectures, lab tours and hands-on project demonstrations in physiology, chemistry, microscopy, physics, robotics, molecular biology and plant ecology. A communications workshop helps participants prepare their college application essays and learn about the application process.

Having academy participants return to Rice for college is the best possible outcome, said IBB Director Yousif Shamoo, associate professor of biochemistry and cell biology, who hopes to bring successful alumni of the program back to Rice for a celebration of the anniversary next summer. “It’s always in the back of your mind when you have these programs that if you do right by the students, they’ll come to Rice and do really well.

“And that has happened, but this is the first year I can say it was wholesale,” Shamoo said.

Rice interns assist high schoolers with a hands-on chromatography t-shirt project during 2009’s Summer Academy.  

The academy runs two sessions. The first, administered by Jennifer West, the Isabel C. Cameron Professor and professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, is for students at the Science Academy of South Texas (SAST), which has been sending its best and brightest to Rice every summer since 1992. These students not only study here but also live on campus and get a taste of what life is like for college students. The program draws support from the Hamill Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“This relationship has been very strong,” said Stacey Kalovidouris, IBB executive director, of working with the Mercedes, Texas, school. “Their administrators and teachers keep excellent records, which is why we have statistics on where these students go. It’s been a really great relationship.”

Shamoo attributes the program’s recent success to the passion West brings to it. “IBB is the principal organizing force behind the academy, but Jennifer is the spirit of the SAST program in particular. She’s the one who really reinvigorated it,” he said.

The second session, run by Shamoo, is open to all Greater Houston high schoolers. Between the two programs, about 40 students participate every year.

“We want them to see how research is done and to know this path is open to them,” Shamoo said. “If they work hard in school and get good grades, they can do this. A lot of students think they just can’t, and we want to break down that cultural barrier.”

Walper, who most enjoyed interacting with Rice graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, got that message loud and clear. “A lot of misconceptions I had about research and college were dismissed,” he said. “It was relieving to find out college was not a gargantuan struggle. Challenging, absolutely, but not impossible.”

The connection was even stronger for Omar Banda, a SAST alumnus who attended the academy two summers ago. The highlight for him was “being able to shadow a Ph.D. researcher. I am now working in that same laboratory, and it is the summer program that gave me this opportunity.”

Shamoo understands. As a high schooler in Connecticut, he found himself in a summer program in the lab of Thomas Steitz, Yale University’s Sterling professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and professor of chemistry. Some years later, Shamoo worked in the professor’s lab as a postdoctoral researcher. Steitz, who shared last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, wrote letters of recommendation for Shamoo to Rice.

“He was already a famous scientist when I was a high schooler, but I didn’t know that at the time,” Shamoo said. “Now I understand just how much these programs can mean.”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.