TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - She was one of the brightest minds in the country, helping send astronauts to the moon. During her life, Katherine Johnson set a new standard for what can be accomplished regardless of race or gender.
On Monday, Feb. 24, the NASA mathematician died at the age of 101, but her spirit lives on as her story continues to inspire.
A young group of Tucson High Magnet School students are following in Johnson’s footsteps with help from a new program.
“SARSEF [Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation] is a science education nonprofit that uses science and engineering to inspire kids to solve problems and think critically, “said Julie Euber, chief operating officer of SARSEF.
SARSEF recently launched a program called S.T.A.R. Laboratories. Since November, 15 high school students have been getting critical mentorship from university grad students and professors.
“We have high school students that have been working on science projects through the year in real labs at the University of Arizona in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology,” Euber said.
One of those students is 18-year-old Halianna Piller.
“My [research] project has to do with ALS,” Piller said. “One of the main proteins found in ALS is TDP-43. I am basically trying to understand it and I am doing that by putting certain stressors on TDP-43. Two of the stressors I decided to use were heat stress and salt.”
Piller says she was always drawn to math and science but once she started high school, she began focusing on medical science.
“Being Mexican myself, I can kind of relate to the Mexican culture; the community itself. I just want to be able to help the community out, to uplift it [through public health research],” she said.
After almost 50 hours of research and mentorship at the S.T.A.R. Laboratories, Piller is proud of her work.
“It’s really made me feel very accomplished,” she said.
Which is the goal.
“We know students very early on are deciding what jobs are for boys and what jobs are for girls. We want to get ahead of that,” Euber said.
Euber says math and science is for anyone who sets their eye on a problem and tries to solve it.
“Joining the science community further has shown me anyone can do this, it’s the effort and the determination and perseverance,” said Isabella Lopez, a S.T.A.R. Laboratories student.
“This is just the start for these students,” Euber said. “They are really trying to solve the biggest problems in our community.”
Star Laboratories students will present their research projects March 11-14 during the SARSEF Science and Engineering Fair at the Tucson Convention Center. The public is welcome to come see their work on March 13 from 5:30 p.m. – 8 p.m.