Sixteen-year-old Evan Chaparro spent much of his summer vacation in a lab in Tucson, extracting plant DNA and analyzing soil samples. He now hopes his summer research project will eventually lead to programs that help heal and repair lands damaged by copper mining.

As an intern with the KEYS program at the University of Arizona’s BIO5 Institute, Chaparro lived the life of a scientist for seven weeks in June and July, residing on campus and researching the impact plants have in healing damaged terrain.

“I worked in the lab every day from nine to five,” he said. “I wanted a summer program where I would be treated more like a scientist and not just a high school student. I had a great time and learned a lot.”

Chaparro, a junior at Vista Grande High School, was assigned to the Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining for the summer program. His project focused on land damaged by the Carlota Copper Mine near Miami, Arizona, and using revegetation to repair it.

“The main objective is to repair the natural environment that was destroyed,” he said. “I investigated the impact of seeding on the percentage of fines (clay- and silt-sized soil particles) across four sites at the Carlota Copper Mine from 2014 through 2018.”

The research studied how plants can break down particles and aid in healing the environment.

“A fine is soil less than 2 millimeters in size. I analyzed soil particle data and found that revegetation accelerates the creation of fines. If fines are increasing, then the depleted land can foster new plant growth increasing biodiversity, decreasing land toxicity and improving the overall appearance of the land. Revegetation’s ability to increase fines is a viable method for land restoration and will be applied in future mine reclamation projects,” he said.

Chaparro hopes to eventually become a chemical engineer working in the field of environmental sustainability. His love of chemical engineering is one of the aspects that earned him a spot in the competitive KEYS internship program. He’s the first student from Casa Grande to be accepted into the program.

“When I interviewed with the program, they asked what type of research I was interested in. When I told them chemical engineering and environmental sustainability, I also got to interview with the lab,” he said. “I went through a very intense selection process.”

Chaparro was one of 50 students selected statewide for a spot in the KEYS program and one of the youngest.

“Most of the students in the program are juniors going into their senior year or seniors going into their first year of college,” he said.

While students in the program work independently, their research is guided by professionals in the field.

Chaparro was mentored by Raina Maier and Julia Neison, said Lisa Romero, senior director of public affairs and engagement for the BIO5 Institute.

“He worked hands-on with top faculty in a research lab,” Romero said.

The KEYS program is run by the BIO5 Institute and is open to high school students from around Arizona with a strong interest in bioscience, engineering, environmental health or biostatistics. Since 2007, 477 students have completed the internship program. More than 97% of alumni pursue science, technology, engineering or math degrees in college, according to Romero.

It’s free to attend and includes housing for those who don’t live in the Tucson area. While attending the program, Chaparro lived in a UA dorm for seven weeks.

“The UA’s BIO5 Institute leads and administers the KEYS program,” Romero said. “State, community, alumni and campus supporters including foundations like the Thomas R. Brown Foundations, the APS Foundation Inc., the Connie Hillman Foundation and the Arizona Foundation for Educational Advancement as well as all five of BIO5’s foundational UA colleges and the UA Honors College, assist in funding KEYS so that the program remains free to interns from across Arizona.”

Chaparro described the program as “the best experience of my life.”

“I was able to form lifelong friendships,” he said. “I loved every single second of the internship and it has provided me with so many opportunities and benefits. Since this program is so prestigious, I am automatically accepted into the UA Honors College.”

Next summer, Chaparro hopes to attend another science lab program or serve as a mentor for the KEYS program.

“Since I am the first from Casa Grande, I will be working with UA staff to install a recruitment program here,” he said.

He said it’s up to his generation to solve some of the environmental issues facing society.

“My main goal is to reduce carbon emissions,” he said. “I love nature and I don’t want to see the environment decline. Science is for people who care about their surroundings. I feel like my generation needs to kick it into high gear to solve some of these problems the world is facing.”

Visit the website for more information about the KEYS program.