UNCG graduate student, Kristen Perez, works with students at the Welborn Academy in Highpoint, NC collect water samples from a local stream and test the quality of the water. She is working with the Welborn Academy through UNCG's STEM

Kristen Pérez, a graduate student in Biology, can talk the talk of the scientist. Amoebae, cytoskeletal proteins, propagation. But she’s learning to tone down the science-speak. Thanks to a classroom of eighth-graders.

“With these kids, if you don’t talk in their language, they stop you in your tracks,” she says. “I’m helping them to see that just because I’m a scientist doesn’t mean I’m just babbling off big words. I try to give them different ways to approach science.”

I like being able to empower children so that they want to learn.

Pérez assists Deborah Roll, a classroom teacher at Welborn Academy of Science and Technology in High Point, as part of UNCG’s GK-12 program. GK-12, is funded for five years by a $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Pérez and Roll are working together to bring more hands-on science learning into the classroom, hopefully breeding future scientists. Pérez is one of nine resident scientists working with the Guilford County Schools this academic year.

Pérez and the other residents earn stipends and money for tuition through GK-12. But money is the least of her rewards.

“I honestly just love being around kids,” says Pérez, who plans to become a physcian’s assistant or a teacher. “I love being around them and I love inspiring them to become interested in science.”

The eighth-graders are studying water quality, which has led them to study the ecosystem in the greenway that runs behind their school. They’re testing water quality, and checking to see if the environment supports microscopic lifeforms, a sign of health.

Pérez would like to use dictyostelium as a test organism because it thrives in soil near freshwater systems. Haven’t heard of dictyostelium? She can explain.

Her current research involves dictyostelium, a form of amoeba identified by the National Institutes of Health as an effective modelling organism for cancer research. By studying the cytoskeletal proteins that enable cell division in the dictyostelium, she hopes to add to our understanding of how cancer cells divide, and how we might stop them from multiplying.

Pérez says several students have already begun taking about future careers in science. One girl wants to be a marine biologist; two other students want to become forensic scientists.

“Some of them were afraid of science, intimidated by it,” says Pérez, herself a product of the Guilford County Schools. “I like being able to empower children so that they want to learn. It’s more than just doing science. It’s just being able to help kids focus on doing well in an academic setting.”

“She breaks down stuff very easily for us to understand,” says student Aisjon Teasley. “She’s serious about learning, but we still have fun in what we do.”

“I didn’t like science at first,” adds Edgar Jones. “Until she made me realize that I can do it.”

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations