Stellar Science Program Celebrates Its Formula for Success

High school students play key roles in the USC program Science, Technology and Research, better known as STAR. The teens take part in projects seeking solutions to some of the world’s most challenging illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and HIV/AIDS. On Aug. 1, the USC School of Pharmacy hosted a celebration marking the program’s 25th anniversary.

Maria Torres-Flores, principal of Bravo Medical Magnet High School, Tom Sayles, senior vice president of USC University Relations, R. Pete Vanderveen, dean of the USC School of Pharmacy, and Roberta Diaz Brinton, director of the USC STAR Program.

Maria Torres-Flores, principal of Bravo Medical Magnet High School, Tom Sayles, senior vice president of USC University Relations, R. Pete Vanderveen, dean of the USC School of Pharmacy, and Roberta Diaz Brinton, director of the USC STAR Program.

“Over 600 students have completed the STAR program since we started it 25 years ago,” said Roberta Diaz Brinton, R. Pete Vanderveen Professor in Therapeutic Discovery and Development at the School of Pharmacy and the program’s director. “These students have contributed to over 100 scientific publications, listing them as co-authors while still in high school. And 100 percent of our STAR students have gone onto universities — many to the nation’s elite schools like USC, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton and Stanford.”

First in Family to Reach College

The evening brought together a unique blend of current STAR students, recent STAR graduates who are now in college or graduate school and STAR alumni who willingly shared their experiences and paths that led to their current positions. Among them was Arthur Ohannessian, now a physician at UCLA.

“I couldn’t wait to come to this reunion to say thank you,” he said. “I would not have the career I have and be able to make the impact on my patients and my family if not for the STAR Program.”

Dr. Arthur Ohannessian thanked Dr. Brinton from the podium.

Dr. Arthur Ohannessian thanked Dr. Brinton from the podium.

Ohannessian went on to say that he was the first in his family to go to college and he credits STAR with empowering him to do science from an early age and with profoundly effecting his decision to go into family medicine. He also mentioned that during his time in STAR, he was credited on three professional publications which he is proud to still have on his dossier.

Lab Experiments, Mentorship and Career Advice

Ohannessian’s sentiments were repeated throughout the evening as STAR alumni shared their experiences and their current positions. STAR is a partnership between USC and Bravo, which is a magnet high school in the Los Angeles Unified School district. Students who participate in STAR are in their assigned USC laboratory teams every afternoon where they conduct experiments. This hands-on lab time is an actual component of their high school curriculum. According to Bravo Principal Maria Torres-Flores, many parents ask her “what do we need to do to get our children into the STAR Program?”.

In addition to the lab team experience, the students are provided with mentorship in science as well as help with college applications and career advice.

“STAR taught me how to work in a lab and alongside a lab team,” said Elvia Ahmed who graduated from the STAR program in 2013 and is now a student a Princeton. “I remember hearing Dr. Brinton talk with such passion during my first day in the lab and I figured I also wanted to be a neuroscientist.”

STAR alumna Elvia Ahmed, who is currently a student at Princeton, talks with David Akhavan, a STAR alumnus who recently completed the MD/PhD Medical Scientist Program of UCLA-CalTech.

STAR alumna Elvia Ahmed, who is currently a student at Princeton, talks with David Akhavan, a STAR alumnus who recently completed the MD/PhD Medical Scientist Program of UCLA-CalTech.

Tom Sayles, senior vice president of USC University Relations, noted that STAR is a vital part of the university’s mission to inspire and uplift our community. He also shared proclamations congratulating STAR accomplishments from LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and the LA County Board of Supervisors. The USC Good Neighbors Campaign has been among the ongoing financial supporters of STAR.

In addition to labs in the School of Pharmacy, other USC labs with Bravo students on their teams include the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Institute for Global Health, Keck School of Medicine, and the Ostrow School of Dentistry. Along with USC, supporters of the program have included the Whittier Foundation and the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation.

A Eureka Moment

Manisha Sajnani, who will begin her freshman year at USC in the fall, mentioned her “STAR eureka moment” when she was charged with performing life-saving surgery on a frog in the laboratory. She recounted how the experience made her realize the difference between a high school biology class and working in a USC STAR laboratory. After she did the required suturing on the frog, she impatiently watched as the anesthetic wore off and it began swimming again in good health.

“It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to become a neurosurgeon.”

The event was structured to provide current students and recent graduates with a glimpse of people who were once just like them – STAR students working in USC labs. And it did just that as alumni – an orthopedic surgeon, an AIDS researcher, a family physician, a hospital pharmacist, a White House policy intern, a medical scientist studying brain tumors, among others – shared their experiences that were built on a STAR foundation.

Grateful for the Fundamentals

“I am grateful for the fundamentals that were instilled in me by STAR,” said David Akhavan who just completed an MD/PhD in the UCLA-CalTech Medical Scientist Training Program.

Current STAR student Jose Garcia shares what the program has taught him.

Current STAR student Jose Garcia shares what the program has taught him.

“The USC School of Pharmacy has been the hub for the STAR program since its inception,” said Dean R. Pete Vanderbeen. “And the program’s success has been recognized nationwide. In fact, Program Director Roberta Diaz Brinton received the Citizen’s Medal of Honor, one of our nation’s highest civilian awards, for her work in STAR from President Obama in 2010.”

The dialogue during the event, both from the podium and at the tables, really showed that STAR provides an amazing foundation from which to soar. And the success of sending every student from the program to college, and some 88% of them into science, technology, engineering and medical careers.

“If you’re going to learn something, embrace it and learn it all,” is what current student Jose Garcia said that STAR has taught him. And he added that it helps to “have a steady hand when doing lab work.”