KEYS Check-In – Week 4

July 6, 2020

Follow along with four KEYS interns during their fourth week participating in a remote data science internship.

Forty-nine outstanding Arizona high schoolers are now more than halfway finished with their remote summer research experiences through BIO5’s Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) Research Internship. These bright students have just two more full weeks of research left before they show off their accomplishments through virtual poster presentations. 

“There’s no way it’s the end of the fourth week… I feel like I just started last week!” said Sonia Mathur, a KEYS intern representing University High School in Tucson. “I’ve had such a good time that I haven’t even noticed what week it is. I thought it was the second week!”

Producing graphs, discovering new viruses and coding functions
During the fourth week of the KEYS program, students refined their coding skills and began to produce their very own graphs. 

After battling with RStudio last week, Sonia was able to create visualizations that illustrate the association between water contaminants and their possible sources. Because these graphs are central to their larger research project, Sonia and the rest of Dr. Leif Abrell’s lab are now able to analyze the data and perform statistical analyses. 

Making her first graph was quite challenging – Sonia had to seek the help of her lab members and online tutorials to accomplish the task. After much trial and error, making subsequent graphs was a breeze as she became more comfortable with the coding process. 

“Once I was able to make the first basic visualization, it became a lot easier to make more complex ones,” Sonia said. 

Sonia’s sister, Esha, also gained more confidence with RStudio, producing graphs about prophages – the genetic material of viruses that infect bacteria.  She and her mentor Dr. Bonnie Hurwitz have discovered new viruses that infect bacteria which have symbiotic relationships with mosses. Esha is amazed that her work revealed prophages that have never been seen or recorded, a true testament to the impact of this seven-week summer program. 

Nik, the third Mathur triplet and intern for Dr. Pascale Charest, seized the driver’s seat of his research project this past week. After spending his first two weeks scouring the literature and mining cancer databases for genes associated with cancer cell migration, he chose his gene of interest and defined his research question. He’ll be studying whether ZDHHC11, a gene that encodes a protein which modifies other proteins, contributes to non-small cell lung cancer growth. 

Using Microsoft Excel, Nik spent many hours downloading, importing and organizing data before he could begin to address his research question. Unfortunately, Nik encountered some challenges and now must restart the process – but as a true display of his resiliency, he’s not letting the hiccup upset him.

“I made a few mistakes,” he said. “I do have to start over, which sounds bad…but it’s honestly not because it’s all about the learning process.

Recent high school graduate Christina Niyigena has also had her share of ups and downs this week. An intern in the lab of Dr. Michael Marty, Christina has been busy writing functions in the Python programming language that will separate data into different rows and columns by individual variables. Her mentor plans to incorporate her function into his UniDec computer program to streamline data analysis. 

Though originally determined to write the code by herself, Christina found that she could learn so much more if she reached out to Dr. Marty and her graduate mentor, Marius Kostelic.

“I’m really not that great at asking for help,” she said. “But that’s why they are mentors…they’re there so you can ask them for help.”

Christina says she’s continually amazed by the time her mentors devote to helping her and fellow intern Margot Nicholson. The four meet each day, sometimes for up to an hour, to ensure that both Christina and Margot have the tools they need to accomplish their projects. 

“As we continue on, I’m surprised at the support, the group connection, and how helpful everybody is,” she said. “If an online (internship) is this great, in-person has to be amazing.”

Learning to be flexible
This week’s seminar speaker taught the students about career resilience and flexibility.
Dr. Eli Chapman spoke to the KEYS interns on July 2 about his winding journey to a career in academia after spending a few years as a laboratory technician for the US Army. Now an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy, Dr. Chapman worked in numerous laboratories before finding his true passion in drug discovery and development. 

Dr. Chapman told the students it’s more than acceptable to change their minds if a certain subject, or even research itself, isn’t speaking to them. He reassured the students that they don’t need to have their entire lives perfectly planned, as interests will change, and that they can’t possibly prepare for all of life’s obstacles, especially not as young high school students.  

“It’s really nice to hear that if there’s something you don’t like, it’s ok to find something else,” Sonia said. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of that.”

To date, all four of the KEYS seminar speakers have vulnerably discussed the difficulties they endured and obstacles they had to overcome in pursuit of their career goals. 

“It shows that nobody’s perfect, and it makes you feel a little bit better that you’re having struggles,” Esha said. “Some of the best people in the world struggle.”

Virtual team building
On par with the first three weeks, the interns have continued to enjoy the social aspect of KEYS, despite not being able to meet in person. 

Nik raves about bonding with his KEYS Crew leader, Jordan Pilch, and fellow interns during their small group breakout sessions. Though intended to last only 30 minutes, Nik said their meetings sometimes last up to an hour because they can’t stop laughing at each other’s jokes. 

The students proved they were more than just budding researchers as their unique talents were on full display Thursday evening during a virtual KEYS talent show. Esha, who enjoys painting “non-traditional things,” shared a few CDs that she painted the previous weekend. 

Because the 2020 KEYS program is entirely virtual, the interns won’t get to share their talents and discuss their projects face-to-face, but next summer, they’ll have the opportunity to come to UArizona to relive their experience in-person. Nik’s looking forward to meeting the people he already feels he knows so well on campus in 2021. 

Missed what happened during the first half of the KEYS program? Get the backstory on these four interns and their projects here, and hear about their progress during Week 3 here

About KEYS
The KEYS program is led by the BIO5 Institute and is funded by BIO5 and generous supporters including individuals, families, companies, foundations and various UArizona faculty, colleges and departments. The Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) that helped launch BIO5 almost 20 years ago continues to be a catalyst in enabling effective, cross-disciplinary bioscience research, innovation and impact at the University of Arizona, and also enables world-class student engagement programs like KEYS.

For additional information about the KEYS Research Internship Program, email

About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, biomedicine, pharmacy, basic science, and computational science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, promising new therapies, innovative diagnostics and devices, and improved food crops. For more information: 

Ryan Hunt, BIO5 Public Affairs and KEYS Crew
Jordan Pilch is the KEYS Crew leader for Nik Mathur's group.