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This fall, two Penn juniors launched Road2Research, a student-run initiative that aims to foster an interest in research for high schoolers, as well as build their network of mentors.

The program partnered with Vaux Big Picture High School and Paul Robeson High School to amass a pilot cohort of 15 students. R2R consists of 20 undergraduate teaching assistants, 18 graduate session leaders, and 12 undergraduate peer mentors, who conduct sessions with high schoolers about research in science.

College junior Jasleen Gill, the co-founder of R2R, was motivated to establish the organization by her personal experience starting out as a researcher.

“The way that I started in research was through cold emailing. As a tenth grader in high school, I emailed over 50 labs to get into my first lab position. It was such a long process because I had no one to vouch for me. I want to help create long-standing mentor-mentee relationships with these students that can aid them in pursuing research,” Gill said. 

R2R differentiates itself from other similar projects by offering a lab-based curriculum and hands-on learning experience. Each session contains about ten minutes of instruction, with the rest of the session comprising workshops and interactive sessions.

“We fill a unique niche in the ecosystem of Penn programs in science and biology through our innovative methods,” College junior Jacqueline Chan, co-founder of R2R, said.

The curriculum took time to develop, with initial planning for the project starting in December of last year. Several variables, such as partner schools and team composition, had to be evaluated by the founders to ensure smooth operations.

“We quickly realized that we should partner with just one or two schools during the first year, and lay more emphasis on developing our program,” Gill said.

The founders assembled a well-rounded team, recruiting experienced members to oversee operations, finance, recruiting, and outreach. They also sought guidance from experts in the field.

“One of our advisors is Dr. Jeanne Garbarino from Rockefeller University, who has decades of experience in running these sorts of programs. She's used her expertise to advise us on how to make our curriculum as accessible and engaging as possible,” Chan said.

Other advisors of the program include Thomas Mallouk — a professor of Chemistry and a Vagelos Professor in Energy Research at Penn — and Kushol Gupta, the Director of the Johnson Foundation Structural Biology and Biophysics Core Facility and a professor of biochemistry and biophysics.

“I think the student organizers have done an excellent job with every aspect of the planning. They've managed to raise the funds that they need to run the program, as well as identify people that want to participate, including faculty,” Mallouk said. “They've thought about the logistics of how to do the experiments and have created a robust curriculum. They've done a very serious job in preparing for the program in order to make it a success.” 

The program, which is sponsored by biotechnology companies New England Biolabs, Spark Therapeutics, and Aptagen, has already effected some change in its first-ever cohort of students. Gill said only one or two participants had received the COVID-19 vaccine at the start of the program. Now, two months into R2R, students have developed a curiosity about the benefits of the vaccine.

“The same students have now constantly demonstrated an interest in wanting to learn more about the vaccine. That’s a win for us because one of our missions is to mitigate the brooding distrust of science that exists in marginalized populations,” Gill said.

Moving forward, R2R hopes to continue what it is currently doing, as well as increase its impact by gaining endorsement from Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

“We're currently working towards becoming a Netter program. We want to fall under the Netter umbrella to take advantage of the existing relationships that they have built with the community and nearby school districts,” Chan said.