Murrah High School seniors and Base Pair students Kilando Chambers, background, and Maggie Jefferis work in Dr. Stephen Stray's lab at UMMC.
Kilando Chambers, background, and Maggie Jefferis, seniors at Murrah High School and Base Pair participants, work in Dr. Stephen Stray's lab at UMMC.
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Base Pair earns community engagement kudos from Ole Miss

Published on Monday, April 15, 2019

By: Karen Bascom

A decade before its current students were even born, the Base Pair program started as a modest collaboration between the neighboring campuses of the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Murrah High School with a simple goal: to foster intellectual curiosity and advance STEM education.

Today, Base Pair is a shining example of partnership done right, earning the University of Mississippi Excellence in Community Engagement Award.

Presented by the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, the five thousand-dollar award recognizes outstanding accomplishments in community-engaged research, learning, service or scholarship based on collaboration between University of Mississippi-associated institutions and the community.

Representing Base Pair at the Celebration of Service are, from left, Tim Medley, a Jackson-area accountant who proposed the Base Pair idea; Dr. Rob Rockhold, UMMC deputy chief academic officer; and Jeff Stokes, lead teacher for Base Pair at Murrah High School.

Base Pair and the other Community Engagement Award recipients were publicly recognized at the Celebration of Service held April 10 at The Inn at Ole Miss.

Started in 1992, Base Pair is an elective, two-year biomedical sciences course. After a period of orientation, the enrolled juniors and seniors are paired with research mentors in UMMC’s basic and clinical science departments. Here, they receive hands-on training in the scientific method, laboratory techniques, and data analysis and presentation.

“We serve the community by providing a pathway for students to begin a journey of exploration towards a stronger science identity,” said Dr. Rob Rockhold, deputy chief academic officer and director of Base Pair.

By science identity, he’s referring to the way people perceive themselves in their relationship with science and within the scientific community.

This is something Base Pair tracks thoroughly, Rockhold said. According to Jeff Stokes, lead teacher for Base Pair at Murrah, the program’s 220 alumni boast a 100% high school graduation rate and 99% college matriculation rate. At least 25 have earned medical degrees, including five physicians that have practiced at UMMC.  Last year’s class alone received more than $3 million in scholarship offers.

Dr. Stephen Stray instructs Kilando Chambers during a work session in Stray's lab

“Throughout the years, we’ve had students accepted at all eight Ivy League colleges, as well at MIT, Vanderbilt and Stanford,” Stokes said.

Kilando Chambers, a Murrah High School senior, said Base Pair has helped him develop skills he plans to use when he starts classes at Harvard University this fall.

“There's a lot of connection involved with Base Pair. And there's also a lot of responsibility and also the scientific things have helped me to kind of decide what I do and don't want to do in life," Chambers said.

Chambers said his favorite lab technique he’s learned is gel electrophoresis, used to separate and identify DNA fragments by length and volume.

“It’s such a good opportunity for everyone. You never know what you’ll learn, and you learn more than you would ever expect,” said Maggie Jefferis, a Murrah senior admitted to the University of Mississippi for this fall.

“Base Pair’s success is entirely dependent on our UMMC faculty member who serve as mentors.” Rockhold said. “They are essential in this program.”

During 2018-2019, eleven faculty members are working with 13 students. Both Chambers and Jefferis, along with Murrah junior Evan Morrissey, work with Dr. Stephen Stray, associate professor of microbiology and immunology.

Murrah High School Junior and Base Pair student Evan Morrissey works in Dr. Stephen Stray's lab at UMMC.
Evan Morriseey, a junior at Murrah High School and Base Pair participant, works in Stray's lab at UMMC.

“It really has made a big difference in a lot of lives,” Stray said. “We've had students who've come through this program who are now practicing as dentists and as physicians and doing other things that they may have never even considered as career opportunities because they got this exposure." In collaboration with their mentors, students produce academic posters, abstracts, and occasionally full peer-reviewed papers that become part of the scientific literature and their science identity.

“These are accomplishments that stay with the student for the rest of their professional lives,” Rockhold said.

Stokes said the program will likely use the award money to support student travel to conferences, including registration fees and transportation, where students have the opportunity to further build on their accomplishments and network with area scientists. It also affords them a mechanism to showcase their own work and practice communicating science to the public, a major goal of the program.

Along with other UMMC efforts in the community, Base Pair will be showcased at this year’s Tech.JXN event in the Jackson Convention Complex on April 16-17.

While Base Pair’s immediate mission is science education, Rockhold said its impact goes beyond its 220 students and alumni and helps build a healthier Mississippi.

“Our fundamental mantra in Base Pair is that we are meeting UMMC’s mission by improving education, and improving education is a key factor in improving the health of a population,” he said.