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PROGRAM TURNING OUT SCIENCE ENTHUSIASTS

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Biology professor Eric Kofoid remembers what he was like in junior high (somebody who needed a padded cell, he says), so he was a little apprehensive when Geeta Shah came to work for him last summer.

Geeta had just finished the eighth grade at Rowland Hall and had come to work in Kofoid's lab at the University of Utah as part of the Hughes Biological Research Program."I thought there would be a lot of handholding," says Kofoid, "and that she would slow me down. But it was just the opposite. . . . Basically she did the work of a grad student."

As for Geeta herself, the experience of working in a university lab at the age of 13 may have changed her life. She thinks now that she would like to pursue a career in biological research.

Turning kids on to biology is the goal of the Hughes program, a division of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The program provides scholarships to students pursuing biological research at the junior high, high school and university undergraduate level.

"A lot of intelligent kids will consider science (as a career), but only if you get them excited about it," notes Pat Renfranz, director of the Hughes program.

Program manager Hope Busto-Keyes can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to pursue biology. "You can learn and learn and learn forever," she says.

And even if the students decide eventually to pursue another career, she adds, having worked as a research scientist for even a short time teaches them to be rational, analytical and curious.

"It teaches you an appreciation for complexity - that the world around you isn't fixed. It encourages you to explore the unknown, even when you think you already know the answer."

Even students who don't end up pursuing science as a career, she says, will have become scientifically literate, more able to help make informed decisions in the future about issues such as genetic engineering.

Each summer, 20 junior high and 20 high school students receive scholarships from the Hughes program to work in 18 U. biology labs. An additional 45 U. undergraduate students also participated in the program this past school year.

According to biology professor Gordon Lark, the program is especially interested in attracting women and minority students, who traditionally have steered clear of science.

Because the research program will run out of funds in 1994, Lark is looking now to private donations, hoping to raise $500,000 to start an endowment. The money would be used for the scholarships; faculty time that goes into the program "is essentially donated," he says.

So far, Lark has not been wildly successful in his efforts to raise money, a fact that he finds ironic every time he drives by the university's new, expensive tennis facility.

People will donate money for sports much more readily than they will for biology scholarships, he notes. "And yet if they build an educated generation, they'll be helping themselves in the future."

Like the other junior high and high school students in the Hughes program, Geeta was paid $300 for 13 hours a week of work for six weeks.

"I couldn't believe I was being paid for being taught," says Geeta, who worked on an experiment with E. coli plasmids. Before the summer began, she says, she didn't know what either E. coli or plasmids were.

This summer, a year older and a year smarter about biology, she will be back in Kofoid's lab, working for free.