With no fanfare at all, Ball High School and UTMB have been collaborating for two years on a program that may well be the only one of its kind in the nation.
For the past 15 years, UTMB has opened the doors of its research labs to a select group of high-achieving juniors and seniors from Ball High School chosen to participate in a year-long Scientific Research and Design Independent Study course. 
But when the Galveston National Laboratory’s biosafety level 4 suite came online two years ago, all of a sudden it meant the high school students in the UTMB Independent Study program had a chance to work on research projects involving pathogens requiring the maximum containment levels available.
“Since UTMB’s national laboratory is virtually the only facility of its kind in the country on a university campus, this may very well be the only opportunity in the U.S. for high school students to do research at this level,” said UTMB’s Lauren Scott, director of educational outreach for the Community Outreach and Engagement Core.
“Since it’s the only national lab of any type in Texas, the program is certainly one-of-a-kind in the state,” said Eleanor Pate, Ball Prep science teacher and the Ball High School instructor for the Research and Design program. “This really sets the students apart from millions of other high school students applying for college and scholarships.”
The high school students actually do not go into the high-level containment labs but their mentors do.
This year, eight Ball High School juniors and seniors are participating in the UTMB Research and Design course. Their research ranges from virology projects in the Galveston National Laboratory to seafood contamination studies in the Center in Environmental Toxicology to human muscle metabolism and exercise during blood-flow restriction in the School of Health Professions Department of Nutrition and Metabolism.
High school junior Lauren Balentine is working with UTMB post-graduate virology fellow Shannan Rossi under the direction of Scott Weaver, the GNL’s scientific director. Their project in the GNL involves investigation of the alphavirus that causes Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis, a disease that can decimate horse populations – most often in South America but occasionally in the southernmost U.S.  Florida and Texas have seen cases within the past several decades. The disease can spread to humans and has caused serious and sometimes fatal disease throughout Latin America.
“I was very nervous before I started working in the lab. I was expecting a very serious, uptight, environment. I couldn’t have been more wrong,” said Ballentine. “The environment of the lab is more real-life than school. Working one-on-one with my mentor, I’ve learned complex, graduate school-level biology in just a few months.”
High school students who work in the GNL undergo a rigorous biosafety program as part of their early training. Senior Meagan Elferink, both of whose parents are research scientists at UTMB, said she’s grown up paying frequent visits to her parents’ labs from the time she was small.
Unlike her parents, however, Elferink says she wants to be a clinician, not a research scientist. She says she hopes to go to medical school and specialize in orthopedics.
Her research project at UTMB, which involves examining biopsied muscle tissue from human subjects undergoing blood-flow-restriction exercise, offers her the opportunity to combine working with patients and working in a lab.
“This gives me a chance to see both sides,” said Elferink.
Elferink’s mentor, David Gundermann, is a graduate student in UTMB’s School of Health Professions’ Department of Nutrition and Metabolism. His human performance research project, led by department chairman Blake Rasmussen, is looking at the mechanism by which blood-flow restriction can be used with resistance exercise to stimulate muscle growth without lifting heavy weights.
Interested Ball High School students have the opportunity to apply for the Research and Design UTMB program once a year. This year’s deadline is March 30 for a 5.0 –level credit that meets for two class periods a day starting in the fall and continuing for the full academic year. It fulfills the internship requirement for Ball Prep students and fulfills the fourth-year science requirement for seniors (for juniors it is an elective course).
To apply students must be ranked in the top 50 of their class, must be able to provide their own transportation to UTMB, must have 7th and 8th periods available in their upcoming year’s schedule, must be 16 at the start of the school year, and must turn in an application that includes a personal essay and teacher recommendations by the deadline date.
Pate, at Ball High School, can provide applications and information to interested students. She is located in Room 2081 and can be reached at eleanor_pate@gisd.org.
The program, also known as the Bench Tutorials Program, is administered by UTMB’s Center in Environmental Toxicology’s Community Outreach and Engagement Core and the Sealy Center for Environmental Health.