Discovering Her Potential

By Olivia House ‘18

A hands-on research program helps students realize their capabilities

“I was asked a couple of times if I was a graduate student,” Amelia Dowling ’22 said. “One person even asked if I was a Ph.D. student.” 

The summer before her senior year, Dowling spent six months working on a research project, including three weeks with a research team at Rhodes College. She’s one of nearly a hundred students who, in the last 10 years, have conducted high-level research alongside local experts as part of St. Mary’s Honors Independent Research Study (HIRS).

Dowling studied the chemical origins of a calcium rock coating called calcium oxalate, which can be found worldwide. Dowling and the Rhodes research team wanted to know if the calcium oxalate coating originated from biological processes or interactions of atmospheric aerosols. Understanding this process helps researchers know how calcium oxalate interacts with prehistoric rock art, which is vital for accurately dating these rock artifacts. The team’s findings were in line with a predominant theory suggesting that the rock coating formed from a combination of aerosols and biogenic activity on the rock’s surface.

“It’s unusual for a high school student to participate in this level of research,” said Dowling.

Rhodes College Professor Jon Russ, Ph.D., who served as Dowling’s mentor, said, “Amelia came in and completed a key facet of our studies—the amount of time it takes to complete a particular chemical reaction—which helped immensely.” He added, “Amelia and my undergraduate students meshed well in the laboratory. She was an outstanding research assistant.”

Dowling’s research experience culminated in poster presentations at the American Chemical Society and the National Society of American Archaeologists conferences. She was also credited as a co-author on the team’s published paper.

Now in her first year at Birmingham Southern College, Dowling says her experience in HIRS has benefited her in many ways.

“I’ve found that I can read scientific articles better and pick up on concepts faster than other students in the lab because of my experience and familiarity with the lab tools,” she said.

A Launching Pad

Dowling is one of many St. Mary’s students who have learned how to navigate the research process before heading to college. HIRS students begin to master important skills, like performing literature reviews and formulating and testing strong research questions, propelling them ahead of most of their peers in college.

Under the instruction of HIRS Director Anna Bess Sorin, Ph.D., students not only engage in a meaningful research experience with a local organization but also write a research paper and give an oral presentation— experiences that further enhance their skill set before attending college.

Students interested in HIRS must apply to the program and interview with Sorin. Approved students begin their work in the spring semester by networking in the Memphis community to identify potential mentors. With the help of Sorin, students meet with their chosen mentors to build a research plan and perform data collection throughout the summer. In the fall, participants present their research at the HIRS Symposium, where they give oral presentations to mimic the presentation style at research conferences.

The HIRS program started in 2010 with a group of five students. After becoming immersed in the process of scientific research, some of this inaugural group continued on a scientific trajectory after graduating.

HIRS influences participants’ academic paths in college and beyond, providing them with valuable skills to navigate their professional development. Sorin emphasizes the importance of presentation and writing skills. Students learn to create concise PowerPoint slides and develop the skill of presenting the information rather than simply reading the slides.

With these tools, Sorin says, “HIRS students can present or discuss their research at a level equal to what you would see at conferences.” As for writing, Sorin encourages the girls to convey information in an accessible way so that a lay audience can understand the purpose and findings of the research.

“I think these components help prepare them for college and professional life, where they may have to give a talk or summarize some data quickly for a meeting. Knowing how to put that together in an approachable way is so important,” Sorin said. The HIRS experience goes beyond concrete and technical skill development; it pushes girls out of their comfort zone to step into a world of professional adults. “HIRS helps girls gain confidence in their ability to interact with adults in a professional capacity,” says Sorin.

Interacting with adults in a professional setting shaped the research experience for recent HIRS student Shifa Panjwani ’23. Panjwani worked with attorneys at Community Legal Center (CLC) to study how the state of Tennessee can improve conservatorship care for the elderly. She and her mentor, Attorney Karen Henson, examined Kentucky’s statutes on free county attorneys in conservatorship cases.

“I want to introduce legislation in Tennessee that mirrors legislation in Kentucky, but I never stopped to think about how that research begins,” Henson said. “Shifa helped me focus my topic. I was impressed by Shifa’s ability to manage her independent study over the summer.”

As part of her research, Panjwani worked in an online legal database to study Kentucky legislation. “In my data collection, I looked at increases in elder abuse and changes in legislation over the years in Kentucky,” she said.

For Panjwani, some of the most defining aspects of her HIRS experience revolved around her interactions with professionals.

“I learned valuable social skills in my HIRS experience, especially while interacting with the other attorneys at the CLC,” Panjwani said. “My favorite part of HIRS was sitting in on meetings between lawyers and clients.” Panjwani’s experience greatly influenced her future academic and career plans and fueled her desire to attend law school.

From tackling complex research questions to navigating the professional world, the HIRS experience challenges students in ways unique to most 17- and 18-year-olds. For Sorin, the most rewarding part of leading the program is witnessing the students realize their capabilities and potential to affect change in the real world.

“I love seeing the excitement in their discovery—both from the research and of their own abilities. The girls really rise to the challenge. They put in the work and appreciate the challenge, even when it’s a little scary,” she said.

Olivia House ’18 graduated from Rhodes College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. At Rhodes, she was a member of the Women’s Soccer team. House works at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in the Marketing and Communications Department.

2022 HIRS participants and program sponsor Dr. Anna Bess Sorin


2022 HIRS Participants

Alexandra Lafferty ’23 researched “How Group Dynamics Affect Child Learning” in collaboration with Dr. Kiren Khan, Department of Psychology at Rhodes College.

Charlie LaMountain ’23 researched the “Effects of Parasitism on Prothonotary Warbler Parental Behavior” in collaboration with Dr. Keith Bowers, Department of Biology at the University of Memphis.

Rachel Larkins ’23 researched “Allelopathic Impacts on Tree Seedling Germination and Growth” in collaboration with Eric Bridges at Overton Park Conservancy.

Shifa Panjwani ’23 researched “The Lack of County Attorneys for the Elderly in Tennessee” in collaboration with Karen Henson at Community Legal Center.

Darla Suitt ’23 researched “Education and Workforce Training for People with Disabilities” in collaboration with Noelia Ojea, AMICA (Cantabria, Spain).

Fia Arbelaez ’23 participated in the St. Jude High School Student Summer Fellowship program and presented “The Impact of Genetic Mutations on Pediatric Medulloblastoma.”

  • Upper School

Additional Images

Beyond conducting high-level research, HIRS participants like Darla Suitt ’23 must present their research in a professional and accessible manner, developing critical public speaking, communication, and presentation skills.

At the HIRS symposium, Charlie LaMountain ’23 (second from the left) presented findings from her study of the “Effects of Parasitism on Prothonotary Warbler Parental Behavior” to an audience that included her community mentor, Dr. Keith Bowers, and her research team from the University of Memphis Department of Biology.

While completing her research project with Community Legal Center, Shifa Panjwani ’23 (pictured with Anna Bess Sorin, Ph.D.) learned how to navigate a professional work environment while earning experience that will help her as she pursues a career in law.

Under the guidance of her community mentor Professor Jon Russ, Ph.D., Amelia Dowling ’22 proved to be a valuable member of the research team at Rhodes College.