Monday, May 20, 2024


AMS student selected to Joint Science and Technology Institute East


Paola Lumbreras may only be in the seventh grade, but she has already proved to be wise beyond her years with her latest accomplishments.

Lumbreras, a student at Acton Middle School, was recently selected to join the Joint Science and Technology Institute East for Middle School Students (JSTI East – MS) set to take place at Townson University in Maryland July 20-26.

The JSTI East – MS is a one-week, fully-funded, residential STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) research program that provides middle school students the opportunity to solve and complete STEM challenges and projects. Students will get the opportunity to work on a research project under the supervision of scientists and engineers. The hands-on projects provide students with opportunities to develop problem-solving and collaboration skills, according to the JSTI East website.

The purpose of the program is to provide students with an opportunity to solve STEM challenges while working as a member of a small team, to inspire them to become lifelong STEM learners and increase awareness of career opportunities in STEM-related fields. The week-long experience ends with students presenting their research findings to a panel of Department of Defense STEM professionals.

Lumbreras was one of 32 students to be chosen nationwide for this program. Students were chosen based on their grades, essay responses, STEM research interests and letters of recommendation.

"I know that one of the main things that got her in there was that letter of recommendation,” Priscilla Lumbreras, Paola’s mom, told the Hood County News. “She’s a little seventh grader that's already doing research and has these very specific goals. It's kind of like, ‘Wow,’ you know, because I taught middle school and most seventh graders are just like, 'OK, whatever.' They have other interests. But this was a pretty competitive process. We did our research, and they get like 3,000 applicants a year.”

Priscilla, who is also the Department of Defense STEM ambassador at Granbury High School, credits former Acton Elementary School Principal Karla Willmeth for both Paola’s STEM passion and for her acceptance into the research program.

"We moved here about seven years ago and Mrs. Willmeth was the first GISD person that our children met when we enrolled in GISD, specifically AES,” Priscilla said. “When Paola realized that she needed a letter of recommendation, Mrs. Willmeth was the first person that she thought about. While this kid has some unique gifts, we credit the leadership of Mrs. Willmeth and her wonderful teachers at AES for instilling the love of learning in her. Her continued growth has only been further supported by the amazing staff at AMS."

While Paola has a strong love for STEM now, it wasn’t always the case. In fact, she explained how at her previous school, the teachers focused more on subjects like reading and math.

"Whenever we moved over here, I had a teacher and she started teaching us about science,” Paola explained. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ because I was not used to it. But, you know, they started really talking me into it, and I was like, 'OK, I really, really like this.’”

As she continued to learn more throughout the years, Paola realized science had started to become her favorite subject.

"I really enjoy just learning about all the things in our world," she said. "My mom's a biology teacher and I would come to her class sometimes after school. I really wanted to just do things with her (equipment) and learn more about science.”

Paola’s passion continued to grow and eventually led to her obtaining a weekend responsibility of feeding and mating zebrafish.

“We have a research partnership with UT Dallas,” Priscilla said. “We house the fish at GHS and Paola is the one that has taken over the weekend responsibilities in caring for the fish.”

Since zebrafish are cannibals and tend to eat their eggs, Paola and Priscilla use a mesh netting to catch the eggs and harvest them for experiments.

“Scientists have discovered that zebrafish have a lot of commonalities with human beings, so they're used a lot in like disease studies, and embryonic development, like how a fetus develops,” Priscilla explained. “Paola loves marine biology; that's like her passion, so she was like ‘Mom, I'll be the one to take care of the fish.’ She's the one that feeds them, checks the water, and does all that hard work.”

“It was really cool to see her so excited about what she was doing,” Ricardo Lumbreras, Paola’s father and Tarleton State University professor, said. “She’s been a part of this process since Priscilla went and picked up the fish last summer. This has sort of been her project, and watching her be so invested, that's cool. We need more kids to be interested in these kinds of things. We're both educators. We see it, but it has to be more than just, ‘We want lifelong learners.’ You can't just say it; you have to create the opportunities for the kids to become lifelong learners.”

The zebrafish eggs have now been a yearlong project for Paola, but they were also vital for her science fair project involving how vaping can impact embryonic development.

"Vaping is a huge problem, especially in the United States, and I've seen it a lot in my middle school and in schools all around the United States, too,” Paola said. “And it was really, really sad, because you've known these kids all your life, and then they just lose themselves because of this stuff. So, I was like, 'I want to do something with vaping.’ But I was researching, and I found that 7% of all pregnant women actually vape in their pregnancy and I really wanted to see if a pregnant woman vapes what happens to the fetus, and the things that we saw were just devastating.”

Paola said in her research, she used three different vaping solutions: 1%, 0.5% and 0.25%. In the 1%, she said there were embryos that were missing half their bodies.

“The deformities are just terrible,” she said. “And being able to know there are women who vape, and this is what's happening to their babies, it’s just sad because sometimes they don't even know. But we haven't really talked about it. There was very little research found on it, and I don't know how people haven't really talked about this.”

Priscilla, who teaches biology, chemistry, IPC (integrated physics and chemistry) and AP research at Granbury High School, said there are several studies on fetal alcohol syndrome and what alcohol does to a developing fetus. However, there were almost no studies done on how vaping can affect a fetus.

"Vaping and smoking — they're just as bad as each other,” Paola said. “Vaping is not safer. It's not healthier. It's just as bad as smoking because of the chemicals that you find in the vapes, like, it's still going to have a toll on your body.”

Paola said one of the science fair judges was a dentist who worked closely with an OBGYN. She said the fetus deformities are exactly what the OBGYN sees in women who vape and that sometimes, the pregnant women do end up losing their babies.

"I really liked doing this project because it was eye opening and if we continue to research this, we can really find a way to maybe undo these effects,” Paola said. “Because with fetal alcohol syndrome, I had read an article about something called retinoic acid, and it can undo the effects that alcohol has on a fetus. I want to find something like that, but for vaping. That's really what I want to do with my project as I continue is like, find a way to undo these things and find a way to help pregnant woman, because sometimes they're ashamed, and they don't know how to reach out and get help.”

She said her main goal is to publish a research paper on the topic, so that people can learn the effects that vaping has not only on fetuses, but on themselves as well.

"There's so many things I really want to do, and like, especially with the judges too, they were like, ‘This is an amazing project, and you need to continue with this. You cannot stop with this project. You have to keep going with it.’ But I really just want to find a way to help people — that's really my biggest thing,” Paola said. “I think if we just research it and continue to help people open their eyes, it's really going to benefit our society today.”

With her science fair project, Paola placed first in the Medicine and Health category at the Fort Worth Regional Science and Engineering Fair. She was also chosen as the Best of Fair for the entire junior division.

She later advanced to the Texas Science and Engineering Fair, where she placed fourth in the state competition March 23.

Because she’s only in middle school, Priscilla said Paola can only advance to the state competition. However, during regionals, Paola was invited to present her research at the Thermo Fischer Junior Innovators Challenge this summer.

"They choose the top 1% science fair projects in the whole nation,” Priscilla said. “They choose the top 300, and then from the 300, they choose 30. If you're in the top 30, you go to Washington, D.C. for a week. They get the opportunity to win, I think it's like a $75,000 prize, so it's a big deal. She's not done yet.”

Priscilla said she wholeheartedly believes that Paola’s science fair project is the main reason why she was selected to JSTI East – MS.

“Science fair is her life,” she said. “That’s all she’s known, like since she was in diapers because I would have to set up projects and here comes Paola. When it’s your world, and it’s all you’ve grown up with, you kind of have an unfair advantage.”

Priscilla said her next goal is to amplify STEM opportunities to other students in GISD and recruit more students to get involved in the science fair.

“The science fair is kind of like the entryway to all these kinds of things, so when I first moved here, they were already shutting it down," Priscilla said. "But I work with an organization in Washington, D.C. that their whole goal is to advocate for this kind of stuff. And I told them, ‘No, just give it to me, I'll do it.’ With COVID, we’re short teachers, and so I just don't have the time to dedicate to it, but now that I finally figured everything out, my goal is to recruit more kids and get them into these kinds of opportunities, because they're out there — we just don't know about them. The science fair is more than just learning science. It helps them build a tremendous skill.”

Priscilla said four of her former science fair students are now in law school and they have told her how much the science fair has helped them in their public speaking abilities.

"You're standing in front of your board, and you get all kinds of random judges. They can ask you anything they want, and you have to be prepared,” Priscilla said. “You have to think on your feet and be ready to answer anything that comes out of their mouth. The science fair, just the speaking part, is a tremendous skill set that you learn from the experience.”

“(Paola’s) like, ‘I’m not a public speaker,’ but the positive impact on her self-efficacy is just tremendous,” Ricardo said. “She’s getting better and better at just expressing herself.”

Priscilla added that if any GISD student is interested in pursuing a STEM-related career, or signing up for the next science fair, they can email her at

As for Paola's journey to Maryland, she said she is most excited about meeting new people and getting to see how their minds work as they collaborate on team projects together.

“She’s the real deal — and she’s only in the seventh grade,” Ricardo added. “She’s done amazing things, and she’s just getting started. We’ll see where the world takes her.”