Gisela Girl Gets In On Cutting Edge Science

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When Beryl Jones pulls on her white lab coat, she transforms almost instantly.

No longer a high school student from the pioneer village of Gisela, Jones becomes a scientist, talking quickly and effortlessly about the breast cancer and diabetes research being done in her lab.

Jones will tell you she has mostly done "simple stuff" so far this summer.

But to hear her describe her internship at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen for short, it's easy to forget Jones is still a teenager.

TGen's internship program culls the top math and science students in Arizona.

Jones beat out 56 college and high school students; only 13 finalists were accepted. Jones is one of four who made the cut.

Jones said she's always been a math and science-oriented person and this internship has given her a chance to experience biomedical research, a serious career interest, firsthand.

"You can read all you want, but until you actually get in the lab you don't really know what it's like," Jones said.

Jones is the first Payson High School student to work as an intern at TGen, a nonprofit biomedical research facility that opened last year in downtown Phoenix.

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"You can read all you want, but until you actually get in the lab you don't really know what it's like," said Beryl Jones, 16, who is an intern at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix.

"Now I'm positive," Jones said. "I could do this for the rest of my life and be happy."

The majority of TGen's interns found their way into the program through institutional partnerships. Jones's job at the laboratory has been to calibrate and program a machine that will be used to quickly set up large numbers of DNA samples for analysis.

The machine is about as big as a mid-sized refrigerator lying on its side. Inside, the machine has two mechanical arms that slide back and forth loading DNA samples into plates that look like tiny ice cube trays.

With 96 wells per tray, samples, loaded by hand, are vulnerable to contamination or loss. Jones has written a program for the machine that will reduce those possibilities while increasing the laboratory's processing time, making it more productive.

The work can be challenging and at times frustrating, Jones said of programming the machine. The reward is knowing that the work she's doing now will benefit the lab as a whole later.

"Even after I'm gone they're going to use this," Jones said of the programs she has written.

"It's not all follow-the-book. You kind of improvise and do it your own way," she said.

Michele Knowlton, a full-time staffer who works with Jones, said she is a capable worker and has been an asset to the lab.

"It's nice to know that you have somebody you can just let go and not have to worry about," Knowlton said.

Jones said she was a little unsure of what to expect from an internship at TGen. But she's quite happy with the exposure she has gotten.

"I didn't know what they'd want with a high school kid, like I'd be a dishwasher or something," she said.

Jones' passion for the work is clear: her eyes light up and a smile spreads across her face when she talks about the road she took getting to TGen.

Jones made her first connections to TGen through Scott Flake, executive director of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, and Town Manager Fred Carpenter. The pair encouraged her to apply for the internship and she was ultimately selected through an individual application process.

Dave Duggan, who runs the lab where Jones works, said he was impressed with the quality of her academics. She had the highest grade point average in her class, and clearly stated her interest in biotechnology.

"I looked (at her resume') and said, ‘this is a special kid,'" Duggan said.

Jones has been working largely independently and has "effortlessly" adapted to the demands of the internship, Duggan said.

"She's doing it, (and) I mean doing it well," he said.

Jones' work would normally be delegated to someone with a post baccalaureate degree. In spite of her age, Duggan said she's doing just as well the other lab workers.

Because Jones has taken so well to working with robotics, Duggan is confident she will transition easily to more traditional scientific work in the second half of her internship.

"We're just hoping to try and expose her to some (aspects of biomedical research) she hadn't thought about," Duggan said.

City Life

Jones relocated to a major city as part of her internship -- her experience has been as much about living away from home as about working in biomedical research.

"It's a major step in the growth of me as an adult," Jones said. "I'd always gone out and done things and learned things, but I've been at home."

The six weeks Jones has spent living and working in Phoenix is the longest she has ever been away from home.

"I think in a way (living away from home) has brought me closer to my family because I've realized all the things they do for me," Jones said. "But not so much that I can't be away from them."

Learning to use the city bus system has probably been the biggest challenge in adapting to city life, Jones said.

Within the first week a fellow passenger told Jones that he had just been released from prison. He then asked her where she lived and followed her most of the way home.

"The people were a little bit odd," Jones said of her original bus route. She now lives with a different host family and the bus route she takes feels much safer because she shares it with other professionals who work in downtown Phoenix.

Jones said she likes the diversity of city life, and having the option of going to a mall or museum.

"I haven't done all the things that I could do down here (in Phoenix), but it's still more than I can do in Payson," she said.

Going home

Jones will return to Payson later this month, just before her senior year starts, but she is reluctant to leave behind the people she's met and the work that she's been enjoying so much.

"I don't really want to go," she said. "I know (the end of the internship) is coming close, so I'm a little bit sad about that."

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