‘An Investment in Science’ — Hartnett Lab Mentors High School Student

May 27, 2022 11:00 AM


Sarah Lee left, and Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD, who has been serving as a mentor for the high school sophomore.
Sarah Lee left, and Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD, who has been serving as a mentor for the high school sophomore.

Timpview High School sophomore Sarah Lee competed in her first Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fair in fifth grade.

"At the time, it was a requirement," she said. "But I've always been curious, and that first fair sparked something in me that made me realize how significant and interesting science is."

She kept competing in STEM fairs, and during her sophomore year in 2021, she took on a new scientific challenge with a personal connection.

"I have a cousin who has congenital cataracts. Since he was little, he has had to go through multiple surgeries under general anesthesia. I was about 6 years old, but I remember how hard it was on my aunt and uncle. Since then, I have been interested in helping infants with eye disease."

During the COVID-19 shutdown, Lee researched experts in the field and came across the John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah and its Hartnett Lab, headed by Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD.

"The more I researched, the more I realized that despite medical advances, there are still many incurable blinding childhood diseases," Lee said. "Dr. Hartnett and her lab had multiple research papers on the subject, so I reached out to her, and we connected online." 

She found the perfect mentors in Hartnett, one of the country's preeminent researchers in pediatric retina, and senior lab specialist Eric Kunz.

Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD, center, meets with a group associated with her lab, from left, Eric Kunz, Maria Margarita Parra, and Sarah Lee.
Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD, center, meets with a group associated with her lab, from left, Eric Kunz, Maria Margarita Parra, and Sarah Lee.

Research Focus on How Blood Vessels Grow in the Eye

Hartnett and her team work to understand what causes blood vessels to grow outside their normal tissue compartments and into other areas of the eye where they cause damage. This abnormal growth is related to retinopathy of prematurity, which occurs in premature infants and is the leading cause of childhood blindness. 

The project they proposed for Lee involved analyzing data on harmful vessel growth in the eye's retina. She studied whether a protein called STAT3 had any effect on the major twists and turns of the vessels, which can be damaging. Lee’s results were negative, but the project allowed her to learn how to read retinal images and work with Hartnett to create a hypothesis and conclusion for entry into various science fairs.

"We are incredibly proud of Sarah. Mentoring has such an impact on students' lives. It's always an excellent investment in the future of science."

Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD

Award-Winning Results

The project garnered several awards: Lee was a finalist in the 2022 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, won first place at the Central Utah Stem Fair in Biomedical, Medicine & Health Sciences, and received The United States Agency for International Development) Science Champion Award.

Those victories also allowed her to compete as a finalist in the International STEM Fair in Atlanta, Georgia, in May 2022. STEM competitions allow an individual or student team to solve a specific challenge or problem through science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

"When I was doing this project, I truly got to experience the professionalism and honesty of researchers," Lee said. "I think this experience has helped me not only in the STEM field but also to grow as a person. Ultimately, I want to pursue a career in the medical field. I am currently interested in being a physician-scientist."

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