Ironwood Ridge High School sophomore Bennett Adamson, 15, front, is president of the SMART Team at Ironwood Ridge High School. He’s with other team members, from left, Jason Kronenfeld, 14, Emily Cherrington, 14, Tiffany Pham, 15, Bianca Reilly, 16, and Meghan Crowther, 14. The group works with a professional researcher, studying topics such as the poison ricin and the P-glycoprotein, a plasma membrane protein that acts as a localized drug transport mechanism from cells. They are holding molecule models.

A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star

They may still be in high school, but they’re living the lives of academics. Students on the eight-member Ironwood Ridge High School Students Modeling a Research Topic (SMART) Team work on research on weekends, build scientific models, travel to conferences and present academic papers.

The students are studying ricin, the lethal substance popularized on the show “Breaking Bad.” The students constructed a 3-D model of ricin’s protein structure, and will compete in April’s 2014 SMART Team Conference in San Diego. The students will present their model and research at the meeting. They’ll also participate at University of Arizona conferences in February and March.

UA pharmaceutical sciences professor Nathan J. Cherrington mentors the students, giving lectures, collaborating with them on research and assigning them papers to read.

SMART Team coach Liane

Futch, who started the program in 2011, said the students develop career and academic skills by researching and presenting.

Cherrington said he is impressed with the students.

“So far they are remarkably competent at modeling proteins,” he said. “This is not a typical program. There are not a whole lot of schools that are running it. The students are very fortunate that Liane Futch goes out of her way to run an extraordinary program that is so widely seen as a positive. She’s wonderful.”

Cherrington’s freshman daughter, Emily, is part of the team. The professor said he’s impressed with the students’ acumen and attention span, calling them “remarkable young people.”

” He’s said he’s struck by the students’ acumen and attention span.

This is the first time I’ve worked with high school students. I don’t even work with undergrad students very much — I mostly work with graduate students and Ph.D.-level scientists, so this is a very new thing for me,” he said.

“They sat patiently through my first discussion of the protein we will be studying, and I wasn’t sure how much they were soaking in. As soon as I stopped, I said, ‘So what do you guys think?’ Their response was, ‘Great, let’s get to work!’ Not only had they been listening, but they were excited about it.”

Futch, who hopes at some point to spread the SMART program to other local schools, downplays her role in the group’s success.

“It’s a student-run organization,” she said. “I just do what I can to help guide them and build upon the learning. The kids are just awesome.”

The students, and Futch, are so dedicated that they meet not only after school, but often on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.

Tiffany Pham, a 15-year-old sophomore, said the team is a way to share her interest in science with like-minded classmates.

“It allows me to connect with peope who have the same interest, and it allows me to connect with the academic community,” she said. “I feel really fortunate we have it at our school.”

Bennett Adamson, also a 15-year-old sophomore, said the team is one of the highlights of his school week.

“I really like the opportunity to be in SMART Team,” he said. “It’s sort of an impressive, cool opportunity. We get to study ricin, work with a mentor and learn about all these really interesting things. It’s a really cool opportunity.”

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or