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Haddix program connects high school students with Creighton researchers

Apr 18, 2022
15 min Read
Micah Mertes
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Israel Bryant Haddix STEM scholar

Israel Bryant has always had a lot of questions: How does this work? Why does it work like that? Could it work another way?

“When I was growing up, my parents couldn’t answer all of my questions,” says the Central High School senior and Creighton research assistant. “So they would sit me down in front of the Discovery Channel, and say, ‘Here, discover something.’”

Through hours upon hours absorbing the “nerdy fun” of science shows, Bryant discovered quite a bit — many answers to many questions, but just as many new questions, too.

Bryant’s bottomless curiosity about the world led her to pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), specifically architectural engineering. Along the way, she’s found plenty of opportunities to quench her inquisitive mind.

One especially great experience was a program that — across multiple STEM fields — dares to ask (and answer) …

How does this work? Why does it work like that? Could it work another way?

A Leader in Student Research

Bryant is one of dozens of Omaha Public high school students to be accepted into the Haddix STEM Corridor Program over the past four years.

Each summer, the program invites juniors at North, South and Central high schools to conduct STEM-focused research work with faculty and students at Creighton. Haddix scholars are paid for their time and give poster presentations of their research at the program’s end.

The University has long been known as a leader in student research. Creighton is continually named a Top School for Undergraduate Research/Creative Projects by U.S. News & World Report. The Haddix STEM Corridor Program has taken this strength into the community.

“With this program, you see a wonderful alignment of Creighton’s mission and vision,” says College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bridget Keegan, PhD. “We’re so grateful to the Haddixes for helping us achieve this for our students, our faculty and the community at large.”

George, PhD, MA’66, and Susan Haddix made the program possible with a $10 million gift, which also supported renovation of Rigge Science Building labs, faculty research, an Ignatian advising program and the Dean’s Fellows student leadership program. Their gift is the largest ever made to the College of Arts and Sciences.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to see the difference you’re making. That’s not the case with this program.
— Susan Haddix

The STEM Corridor program connects a few key threads from George Haddix’s life. George — also a former Creighton faculty member — grew up along the 24th Street thoroughfare, where each of the program’s participating high schools resides. He went to high school at Omaha North. His father worked for a South Omaha meatpacking plant.

Now, he and his wife have strengthened the roots between the University and the iconic stretch of Omaha that shaped his life and career. Susan Haddix has supported and volunteered at many organizations over the past 40 years.

“Sometimes, it can be difficult to see the difference you’re making. That’s not the case with this program,” she says. “We see what it’s doing, and we see how these students are flourishing. It’s one of the best things George and I have ever been a part of.”

Haddix Program Results Speak for Themselves

Any program steeped in research must itself be assessed methodically. The Haddix program has plenty of data to draw from. The results so far?

“This program has engaged so many high school students in meaningful research work,” says Kayode Oshin, PhD, associate professor and director of the Haddix program. “I am grateful to all Creighton faculty members who have mentored these scholars. I am equally grateful to the Haddix family for directing their philanthropic efforts toward this kind of program because it makes a real difference and truly impacts the career trajectory of each student participant.”

Of the dozens of Haddix scholars who have graduated high school, nearly all are now attending college, most pursuing STEM degrees.

Having actual research experience has helped the students in their college applications. Many have received national awards and scholarships because of their Haddix work. There are a few especially notable success stories.

Former Haddix scholar and Omaha North graduate Audrey Anderson, for instance, parlayed her research project with biology professor Carol Fassbinder-Orth, PhD, into more than $70,000 in scholarships.

Meanwhile, Central High grad Xzavier Herbert — who conducted research with Nathan Pennington, PhD, associate professor of mathematics — is one of three Haddix scholars to be accepted into MIT, where he’s studying theoretical mathematics. He has continued to conduct research, spending one summer working on “space math” at NASA.  

Herbert had been teaching himself advanced math concepts since eighth grade, but before the Haddix program, he didn’t really know what mathematical research entailed.

“It was very enlightening,” he says. “But it’s not just a research program; it also helps you apply to college, develop some really essential skills and figure out what you want to do (or not do) with your life.”

Kayode Oshin, Jamie Alarcon Soto and Annemarie Shibata
From left, Kayode Oshin, PhD, Jamie Alarcon Soto, and Annemarie Shibata, PhD, BS’92. In 2019, Soto worked in Shibata’s lab as part of the Haddix STEM program. As a Creighton student, she will work in Oshin’s lab starting this summer.

Some Haddix scholars end up coming to Creighton.

Before participating in the program, North High graduate and Creighton chemistry sophomore Jamie Alarcon Soto hadn’t even considered the University an option. But that experience — and a Creighton scholarship — changed everything.

“It’s still hard to believe that as a high school student I got to do actual research that’s going to mean something,” says Soto, whose Haddix project with biology professor Annemarie Shibata, PhD, BS’92. studied the neural effects of suppressing CPT2 proteins. “The experience opened my eyes to what research actually is and the different paths I could choose.”

Sydney Westphal — a Central High grad and Creighton junior majoring in environmental sustainability — was a member of the first Haddix cohort, her project surveying flora and fauna on the Nebraska prairie under the mentorship of biology professor Theodore Burk, DPhil. Thanks to that experience, she had multiple Creighton mentors before she even started her freshman year.

“Creighton takes mentorship seriously,” Westphal says. “My professors have helped me explore science at a deeper level. They’ve helped me form new thinking, new approaches, new ways of seeing the world.”

Creighton takes mentorship seriously. My professors have helped me explore science at a deeper level. They’ve helped me form new thinking, new approaches, new ways of seeing the world.
— Sydney Westphal

One great thing the Haddix program does for its scholars — especially first-generation students — is to normalize college, says Alexandra Griswold, a North High grad and psychology/philosophy junior at Creighton who conducted research with Jake Siedlik, PhD, assistant professor of exercise science.

“I remember my summer in the program, that experience of walking across campus and into the building, meeting with my professor and doing my research,” she says. “I had so much authority in my project and autonomy in my life. I felt like I belonged here.”

Central High graduate and Creighton biochemistry sophomore Ashton Hagen — who conducted research with biochemistry associate professor Lynne Dieckman, PhD — says his Haddix experience drew him to the College of Arts and Sciences not just because of the opportunities for undergraduate research but for the mission underlying that research.

“I need to know what I’m working on will eventually benefit someone else,” says Hagen, whose Haddix project studied how cloned proteins would interact with cancerous cells. “That’s true for my peers, too. You won’t find a lot of people here who do research just to build a resume. We want to help others. That’s the purpose of research at Creighton.”

Benefiting the Community

The benefits of the Haddix program have been as significant for the community as they have for Creighton.

“This program is exactly what’s been needed in Omaha for some time,” says Dan Sitzman, longtime science educator and president of Omaha’s Metropolitan Science & Engineering Fair. “It’s a phenomenal way to help create opportunities.”

The program, he says, “gives students the opportunity to conduct meaningful research at a prestigious university with a Creighton professor who will take the time to get to know them as a person.”

The program’s reach extends far beyond the Haddix scholars themselves, says LaDeidre Jackson, curriculum specialist for science and art at Omaha North.

“The Haddix program has been the best thing to happen to our own science program in many years,” she says. “A lot of high school students don’t think they like science. But when the Haddix scholars come back and tell their classmates about their experience, a lot of students get excited.”

At Omaha Central, the Haddix program has even shifted the way faculty teach high school science.

Ashton Hagen
Ashton Hagen delivers his poster presentation as a 2019 Haddix STEM scholar. Hagen is a current Creighton student majoring in biochemistry.

“The program has encouraged our teachers to incorporate more research into the classroom,” says Janis Elliott, former science department chair at Central High. “They now promote a broad application of research and encourage our students to pursue their own work. Central High School even started its own research class.”

The Haddix program has likewise been a game-changing experience for faculty at Creighton.

“Our faculty have become aware of the caliber of students accepted into this program and how transformative this experience is for them,” says Oshin. “As a result, many research-active faculty are willing and excited to serve as mentors to new scholars each summer.”

Due to faculty enthusiasm, the Haddix program has expanded. Originally, the program admitted 13 high school students each summer. That number has since grown to 21, thanks to two Creighton faculty members who secured external funding to support more students participating in the program.

Dieckman received a National Science Foundation CAREER grant that supports six additional part-time Haddix scholars each year for five years. And recently, Joel Destino, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry, received a National Science Foundation CAREER grant, which will sponsor two additional Haddix scholars for the next five years.

Destino recalls one of his Haddix students — Eh Mo Khaing, a Central High School graduate — as “one of the most hard-working and intelligent people I’ve ever worked with. Getting to see her unique perspective on the world was a tremendous experience.”

Andrew Ekpenyong, PhD, MS’07, assistant professor of physics, says mentoring in the Haddix program has actually changed the way he teaches undergraduates.

“It has helped me discover even greater potential in young people,” he says. “I am no longer waiting for them to get to a certain level before I ask for their help to attack a cutting-edge scientific question. They are already ready.”

One Haddix scholar who shifted Ekpenyong’s expectations? Central High senior Israel Bryant.

Exploring the Physics of Cancer

Bryant’s research didn’t end with the Haddix program. As her high school graduation nears, she’s continued to work with Ekpenyong at Creighton. The two co-authored a paper they presented at the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting, an international science conference, earlier this year.

Their research explores the physics of cancer, using a device called the microfluidic microcirculation mimetic (MMM), which mimics cell behavior in the body’s circulatory system.

Israel Bryant
After her summer research project as part of the Haddix program, Israel Bryant, a senior at Omaha Central High School, continued to work in the lab of Creighton physics faculty member Andrew Ekpenyong, PhD.

The MMM allows Ekpenyong and Bryant to simulate the effects of chemotherapy drugs on cancer cells. Their hypothesis is that certain chemo drugs make the surviving cancer cells more likely to spread to other parts of the body.

Bryant knows that this research could lead to how cancer is treated, that it might one day save lives. She also knows that looks great for college and scholarship applications.

“But it also just feels good,” she says. “I’m still in high school, but I’ve already done something that’s going to help the world.”

That inquisitive girl glued to the TV screen is now a published scientist looking through the microscope. But for Bryant, the core questions remain the same for every endeavor …

How does this work? Why does it work like that? Could it work another way?