Arthur Tao is weeks away from starting his senior year at Lincoln High School, but he already has spent the summer learning about neurodevelopment and doing research around a protein causing a rare disease.
Kiara Schilling and Jaritza Cruz are entering their sophomore year at South Dakota State University and shared a lab this summer while working on projects synthesizing compounds involving prostate cancer and myeloma cells, respectively.
They’re just three of the dozens of students who came together this week for a symposium organized by South Dakota EPSCoR, the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, which held the event for students to present their work and receive feedback from professionals in their field.
“I learned a lot – a lot you don’t learn for labs in classes,” said Schilling, a Minnesota native majoring in chemistry and biotechnology.
As part of their visit to Sioux Falls, the students had a chance to connect with one another, graduate schools, graduate students and the Sioux Falls business community as part of a networking event sponsored by the Sioux Falls Development Foundation in partnership with Sanford Research, South Dakota Biotech and EPSCoR.
“We wanted to open these students’ eyes to the incredible opportunities to continue their education and their careers here,” said Denise Guzzetta, vice president of talent and workforce development at the Sioux Falls Development Foundation.
“With them as primarily undergraduates, we start with the advantage that they’ve already chosen South Dakota for their education. Now, it’s up to us to help them realize their next steps can be here too.”
“This was such a great opportunity for us to show all the available careers at Sanford,” said Kara McCormick, who oversees outreach and communications at Sanford Research and serves on the board of South Dakota Biotech.
“During the tour, they saw research labs and learned about the different types of equipment and bench research that happens at Sanford. We’ve also worked with many undergraduates participating in the symposium on their research and have for a number of years. We’ve found there are quite a few students who come back multiple summers, and many end up going to graduate school in South Dakota or even working here when they graduate.”
Tao didn’t exactly need the tour – the high school student actually did his research work at Sanford this summer.
“This opportunity is fantastic. A lot of larger regions don’t have something so immersive,” he said. “It’s the culture of learning that’s surprised me the most. People have been really helpful, and there have been boot camps and seminars to teach me the basics, so the learning curve has become easier.”
He also took full advantage of the networking offered.
“That’s been invaluable,” Tao said. “I’ve been able to ask others in the field what advice they would give to me as a high schooler. Getting that broad perspective of people in the field with different backgrounds from mine has been really helpful. Going into the internship, I was thinking of doing my undergrad and med school, but this has made me consider a Ph.D. route or an MD-Ph.D.”
For the current undergrads, the exposure to Sanford Research and the networking that occurred there were equally valuable.
“It was really exciting to come here,” said Cruz, who came to the U.S. from Mexico to major in biochemistry. “I’m looking into medical school in South Dakota, and it was really cool to meet other students here.”
Schilling was inspired by the work at Sanford Research too.
“I thought it was really cool seeing the facilities,” she said. “It kind of makes me want to come here.”
The networking between grad students and undergrads can be just as beneficial as introducing them to businesses, said Mel Ustad, the principal investigator at South Dakota EPSCoR.
“They’re not only interacting with future employers but getting to meet students who are pursuing paths similar to themselves,” he said. “It’s a great, all-around learning experience as an undergraduate and a valuable opportunity to conduct hands-on research at the same time.”
The event and the symposium the following day drew seven businesses looking to connect with workers in STEM fields, said Joni Ekstrum, executive director of South Dakota Biotech.
“We hear regularly from biotech businesses searching for talent to help support their work, and the good news is South Dakota is full of that talent in our universities. The key is making those connections,” she said.
“That’s why events like this that combine professional development with education and networking are so valuable.”
That was the goal behind the Development Foundation supporting the event, Guzzetta said.
“It’s all about making those connections, building those relationships and exposing our talented students to worlds and people they never knew existed,” she said. “We know conversations that begin at events like these can lead to long and rewarding careers.”