Interview with an SSTP Alumnus

Just what research fields are open to SSTP applicants?

In October, the Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbach, and Michael Young for their groundbreaking research into the genetic mechanisms that regulate the circadian rhythm of fruit flies. Here at the University of Iowa, meanwhile, SSTP mentor Dr. Bridget Lear has been performing her own groundbreaking research in the very same subject, and last summer, SSTP alumnnus Arshaq Saleem was a researcher in her lab. He spoke with us recently about his application, working in the lab, and his aspirations for the future.

The following interview has been edited for formatting.


Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Arshaq. How did you discover the Secondary Student Training Program?

I had attended the Blank Summer Institute for the Arts and Sciences when I was younger, so I wanted to continue. Additionally, some of my friends had participated in SSTP, and they gave very positive reviews. I wanted to gain hands-on experience doing research to see if I would like it as a potential career. Rather than just learning about concepts in textbooks, I figured it would be much more useful to apply them in a laboratory setting.


What were your research interests going into the program?

In my sophomore year, I had to write a research paper on genetic engineering. It was at this time that I stumbled across CRISPR/Cas9 as a gene-editing technology. I was intrigued by its potential in gene therapy, so I chose to write my paper about it. actogram.jpgWhen applying to SSTP, I hoped that I would be able to work on a project related to CRISPR. Dr. Lear, my SSTP mentor, luckily gave me a project that used CRISPR to analyze how specific gene mutations in fruit flies affect circadian rhythms. The project was too long to be completed in my time at SSTP, but we were able to make good progress.


What did you think of the research process?

I really enjoyed the research that I did in Dr. Lear’s lab. One thing I quickly came to realize, however, was that research does not always produce the results we want the first time around. It took Alexander Graham Bell, of course, thousands of attempts to perfect the telephone, but only after taking part in research did I come to understand how frustrating it is when things don’t go well. There were a few occasions where some of our procedures simply failed, and we had to redo the experiments completely.

SSTP Extracurriculars 2017-5On the other hand, though, when things did go well, it was extremely satisfying, and it validated my efforts as a researcher. Over the course of the program, I made several mistakes, but these mistakes helped shape my understanding of standard laboratory procedures. SSTP was my first real experience doing lab work; I had previously interned at another lab in the University of Iowa, but because I was too young, I could not perform any experiments.


Recently, your research area made world news with the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for “discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm” of the fruit fly. When and how did you first hear the news?

I am interested in developments in medicine, so when it came time for the Nobel Prize announcements, I was curious to see what research was given the Nobel Prize in Medicine. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was given to circadian rhythm biologists that worked with fruit flies.

I felt even more proud of my research after the announcement. The research that I worked on during SSTP is definitely related to that of the Nobel Prize winners’, and it aims to build off of the base of knowledge that they created. I was also glad to see these researchers being recognized because work on circadian rhythms does not receive much attention in mass media compared to other fields of study in medicine, despite its importance.


How was it working with your mentor, Dr. Lear?

I am very grateful for the opportunity to work with Dr. Lear, as well as Xinguo Lu, the blear_lggraduate student who worked with me, and Stephanie Haase and Jessica Draus, the other graduate students in Dr. Lear’s lab. All of them were very patient with me, they answered my questions, and they explained the concepts clearly. There were definitely times when I was in over my head, but I always had someone to ask for help.

Since I live in Iowa City, I’ve been lucky enough to continue my connection with Dr. Lear. I have spoken to her about updates to the project, and I intend to revisit the lab soon.


You’ve clearly got a bright future ahead of you. Where do you want to go with your future research?

I appreciate the kind words. I am currently interested in pursuing a pre-med track in college. I hope to continue working in labs in college, since I think it will benefit me greatly when I become a doctor.


Do you have any word of advice for future SSTP applicants?

SSTP strengthened me as a student of science, but also as a person (as I had to live away from my parents and be more responsible). For future SSTP participants, I have the following advice:  Ask your mentor/graduate students lots of questions, and don’t ever feel like you are annoying them; learn from your mistakes; make lots of friends; don’t spend all your time doing research (remember to have fun!); read lots of papers related to your research; and most importantly, have confidence in yourself and believe that you can complete the project.

I would also advise anyone that is even slightly interested in research, be it in math, science, or computer science, to apply for SSTP. Make sure you show your passion for science in the essays, because they are a major part of the application process.

SSTP Poster Session 2017-1



Countdown to Applications

The Secondary Student Training Program at the University of Iowa is now officially open to applications! To prepare, let’s take a moment to go over what you can expect during the application process.

On the SSTP homepage, click on the green Apply Now button:



Step 1: Creating Your Account 

After clicking on Apply Now, you will be asked to create a personal application account. To make your account, you will be required to provide personal information, including your address, your home phone number, and your date of birth. Please make sure you include the email address you intend to use for all future communication with the Belin-Blank Center in the highlighted fields you see below:


Once you have filled out each of the fields, click on the Apply button to proceed to the next part of the application.

Step 2: The Application Fee

Next, you will land at the following page:


Click on Continue to proceed to the payment portal, where you will be asked to fill out credit card information. The application fee for SSTP at the University of Iowa is $50.00. Upon acceptance to the program, the $50.00 application fee will be credited towards your program costs. Please note that only Visa and Mastercard payment can be accepted.


The AmountInvoice Number, Description, Program, and Record_ID fields will populate automatically. Once you’ve filled out the top three fields (Name on cardCard NumberExpiration Date), click Process to complete the payment and move on to the next step of the application.

Step 3: Your Application Checklist

After clicking Process, you will land at the Application Checklist page. It will look something like this:

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Most of your the buttons should be red at the beginning, but they will turn green as you complete the various application requirements. To see a detailed description of what requirements you still have to complete, click on one of the red buttons.

Step 4: Application Responses and Research Interests

If you click on the Application Responses and Research Interests button, you will see the following:


On the left hand side are three prompts. The first two are essay questions. These essays are your chance to introduce yourself and communicate what makes you a great candidate for SSTP. For the essay questions, we strongly recommend composing your responses in a word processor such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs and using the word count tool. Both essay responses are capped at 750 words, so please watch your word count and be careful not to exceed it. Once you feel like you have answered the prompts to your satisfaction, click the Edit button below the final prompt, and then copy and paste your essays into the boxes that appear to the right:


The final prompt on the left hand side asks for your research interests. Here, you should not answer in essay form.

To save your entries in each field, click the Update button that appears below the final prompt.

Step 5: Application Materials

In addition to your essays and research interests, you will also have to submit 2 teacher recommendations, a high school transcript, and test scores from the SAT, PSAT, ACT, PLAN, or similar. To do so, click on the Application Materials button, and the following menu will pop down:

Application materials

You will see that for the teacher recommendations, we ask that you enter the email address of the teachers who intend to submit a recommendation letter on your behalf. First, talk to your teachers about your application, and see who can give you a recommendation. Then, once you have their confirmation, enter your 2 recommending teachers’ email addresses into the fields given and click Send Request.

You will also see that we ask for your high school transcript. Here, you should also include college-level courses you may have taken, as well as any other courses you may have taken outside of school. Please note, however, that only one document can be submitted, so make sure you merge all your transcript materials into a single .pdf document before uploading.

Lastly, you must submit 1 test score from a standardized exam. If you are unsure whether the test score you wish to submit meets our criteria, please contact us at with the details regard your test of choice before you submit it, and we will let you know if your test score is eligible as quickly as possible. You may submit only 1 score, so make sure you choose the test results that you feel best reflect your abilities.

Step 6: Where’s the Submit Button?

Once you have completed each section of the Application Checklist, each button will turn green, and your application status will say, “Complete – Pending Acceptance” as indicated below:


Once you see the “Complete” message, no further action is required. You can continue working on your application until the submission deadline on February 1st, at which time, you will no longer be able to edit your materials.

On April 2nd, 2018, successful applications will be notified of their acceptance via the email address provided in the application.

If you ever lose your place during the application process, have no fear. Simply navigate back to the application from the SSTP homepage and click on the green Apply Now button:


Good luck! Feel free to reach out to if you have any questions. We look forward to seeing your application.


Astrophysics Alumna’s SSTP Research Published


2015 Alumna Liza Casella must be over the moon. Last month, her SSTP mentor Dr. Philip E. Kaaret published the paper she co-authored, “Resolving the X-ray emission from the Lyman continuum emitting galaxy Tol 1247-232,” in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Dr. Kaaret’s study focused on a deep mystery of astrophysics: why do we see such bright stars in the night sky?

Galaxies-AGN-Inner-Structure.svgBlack holes may be the answer. After the big bang, the universe filled with gasses that, like clouds on a stormy day, should blot out interstellar light. The super-massive black holes at the cores of galaxies, however, spin so quickly that they shoot off matter, creating winds that pierce the cosmic fog and allowing light to shine through, Dr. Kaaret and his team hypothesize.

It looks like Ms. Casella, now studying at Barnard College, has a bright future ahead of her!


SSTP Mentor Gets Nod from NY Times

DonaldAAndersonDr. Donald D. Anderson, Director of the Iowa Orthopedic Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Iowa, was cited by the New York Times last week for his innovative research in the field of Osteoarthritis. To quote the article, “The Iowa team noted that arthritis will eventually develop in more than 40 percent of people who seriously injure the ligaments (the stabilizing bands that connect bones to one another); the meniscus (the crescent-shaped cartilage that cushions the knee and certain other joints), or the articular surface of a joint.”

His and his colleagues’ work establishes the link between traumatic joint injury and development of arthritis, and it points to new molecular intervention treatment options on the horizon that could minimize or prevent long-lasting tissue damage. The 2011 paper the New York times cites is available here.

Dr. Anderson is a valued SSTP mentor, and this year he even served as a panel judge in the SSTP Poster competition. His lab has hosted SSTP students from all over the world.


SSTP 2017: Week 5

Week 5 kicked off with a fencing class, followed by cupcake decorating at Molly’s Cupcakes.

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Monday night, students attended an informative seminar.


Tuesday, students visited the labs of Dr. Arlene Drack in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and Dr. Hanna Stevens in the Department of Psychiatry.

Wednesday, our international students attended an International Reception.


Thursday, students attended the final session of their calligraphy and improv classes.

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Friday, students relaxed at a Kernels baseball game in Cedar Rapids.

Students spent Saturday at the Cedar Rapids Art Museum and the SkyZone Trampoline Park.

Check back for our final weekly update!

Closing Ceremony and Poster Fair

Just as the dog days of summer begin, the Secondary Student Training Program ends! Only a week remains before the 2017 SSTP cohort has to put the finishing touches on their brilliant research projects.

What have our students have been working on this summer? From epigenetics to Yelp analytics, student research projects have run the gamut of cutting-edge STEM topics. To celebrate their outstanding work, we will hold two events in their honor:

Closing Ceremony: This invite-only gala event brings together SSTP students, their families and their research groups for a farewell banquet. Proud parents get a first look at the research results, and the students get to share their findings with their peers.

Poster Fair: This one’s open to the public! On Friday, July 28th from 10:00am-12:00pm, the SSTP students will present their findings for all to see. No RSVP necessary. If you’re interested, we invite you to come to the Main Ballroom of the University of Iowa Memorial Union and discover just what SSTP is all about.


We hope to see you there!


SSTP 2017: Week 4

Week 4 kicked off with tie-dye followed by froyo with ICRU mentors.

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On Monday, students attended a seminar held by Megan Foley Nicpon, PhD, associate professor in the Counseling Psychology Program.


Tuesday, students attended seminars given by Dr. Syed Mubeen, professor in the Chemical and Biochemical Engineering department, as well as Dr. Ned Bowden, professor of Chemistry.


On Wednesday, students celebrated Zach and Mark’s birthdays!


Thursday, students attended another session of their improv and calligraphy courses.

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Friday, students relaxed at game night before heading to the Eastern Iowa Observatory and Learning Center.

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Students cooled off Saturday at Lost Island Waterpark.


Check back next week for another update!