PBS in the Classroom

Helping High Schoolers Find Research and STEM Field Opportunities

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September 20, 2017

I’ve been involved in shepherding high school students through the world of Independent Research for nearly two decades – I know firsthand the impact that spending one or two summers working in a scientific institution with a real scientist can have on their lives.  High school students who are exposed to these experiences tend to gain excellent skills, which help them to:

  1. become self-directed learners
  2. gain confidence in their skills and ability to perform and communicate their work
  3. try out possible career options that are marketable
  4. become more attractive candidates to universities, and
  5. consider pursuing research opportunities throughout their college careers.
Finding a Scientific Opportunity

The most difficult part of being a high school researcher is finding a scientist to work with. Researchers at universities and hospitals are incredibly busy and often do not even consider the requests of the lowly high school student. Also, in these days where funding is precarious and grant writing has become a job prerequisite for most scientists, finding time to mentor and train relatively inexperienced teenagers is a challenge. 

12 Steps to Identifying a Mentor

STEM is the collective term for the academic fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Finding a STEM mentor is such a daunting process that I was asked to summarize the technique I use to teach my research students. The resource is called 12 Easy Steps for Finding a STEM mentor, posted on sciencebuddies.org, which guides students through the research process.    

Finding Available Programs

Today we are so fortunate to have programs such as the Emperor Science Awards (which PBS sponsors) that help connect strong students to willing scientists. One of my strongest students, Julia Park, is a two-year Award recipient and has been working with Dr. Christine Chio on projects involving the redox biology inherent in pancreatic cancer.  I encouraged Julia to apply as soon as I learned about the program. She was only a sophomore but I knew she was bright and conscientious and taking the most rigorous coursework available.  When I visited her at Cold Spring Harbor lab, I always left incredibly impressed with the topic and work being attempted, but even more so with the collegiality I witnessed between Dr. Chio and Julia. They were a team!  I believe that these types of mentor relationships provide the best way to direct smart students into STEM careers. See the link to Pathways to Science, which lists programs and universities that offer avenues for young people interested in pursuing STEM fields. The demand for skilled workers in STEM fields is growing, and closely linked to global competitiveness. Encouraging our young people to pursue research and STEM related fields is giving them a path to an in-demand career future.

Looking for resources to encourage students who are interested in STEM or research? These are a great start: 


The Emperor Science Award program was designed to empower high school students to become the next generation of cancer researchers. Entry will be open to 10th- and 11th-grade students for the 2017-2018 school year who have a strong scientific interest, especially in cancer research and care, including prior applicants or recipients in those grades. Students from all backgrounds, anywhere in the continental U.S., are encouraged to apply. Entrants will be required to complete an application and submit an essay. Entries for summer 2018 mentorships will be accepted now through November 1, 2017, 11:59 pm ET, and winners will be announced in December 2017.

Students, teachers, guidance counselors, administrators and parents can visit The Emperor Science Award website to learn more about the program, read the application essay prompt, view associated resources and submit applications.


Marylou O’Donnell has been a teaching professional for 31 years focusing on computer programming, chemistry and biology instruction.  She is currently the High School Research Coordinator at Plainview Old Bethpage High School in Plainview, NY and the mentor for Julia Park, recipient of the 2016 and 2017 Emperor Science Award.


Mary Lou O’Donnell

Mary Lou O’Donnell HS Research Coordinator

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