September 21, 2012
Project SEED Growing Budding Scientists
Four Elkhart high school students spent this past summer working in research laboratories at the University of Notre Dame as part of Project SEED, an educational program that exposes students to scientific careers.
The American Chemical Society, which hosts Project SEED, interviewed students from throughout the Michiana area to fill the program's four summer fellowships. Three students from Memorial High School, junior Edgar Ocampo and seniors Brittney Joy and Elliott Denton, and Central senior Logan Edwards were selected.
Memorial junior Edgar Ocampo
The Elkhart students spent 8 weeks of their summer conducting hands-on research alongside Notre Dame students and professors. The students received a financial stipend for their work and will be eligible to receive college scholarships.
At the end of the summer, the students had to submit a report based on their research experiences which involved making new compounds, collecting data, and working with scientific instruments and computers.
Each of the students worked in different labs at Notre Dame. Edgar Ocampo, who plans to major in bio-chemistry in college, worked with TB and the proteins found in it. "We were trying to find certain proteins that appear in TB, and looking at what medicines we could use to manipulate them," Edgar explained. "We set up a library of all the proteins, and toward the end of the project, we were able to make up different compounds that could manipulate the bacteria."
Edgar said the fellowship was just like having a real job, noting the high school students put in full 8-hour work days. He added students had to submit a resume to apply to the program and go through a personal interview.
Edgar said the 8 weeks flew by and that he actually wished he could have stayed on the job longer. "I wanted to continue the research," he stated. "I wanted to see where it led."
He said the lab experience was extremely valuable to someone who wants to pursue a career in science. "I was able to apply a lot of the skills we learned in our high school chemistry classroom," he said. "I saw real life applications for what we were doing."
Brittney Joy, who is considering majoring in biology or chemistry, worked with paper analytical devices (PADs) to determine if the drugs they were testing were counterfeit or low quality.
"Pharmacies use the PADs," Brittney explained. "We were trying to expand their use to individuals. My professor at Notre Dame went to Kenya to test them there and train others to use them because counterfeit and low quality drugs are a huge problem there."
Brittney acknowledged it was initially a bit intimidating working with older, more experienced college students. “But after a couple of days I felt fine," she said. "The college students were very welcoming and willing to help."
Brittney said she definitely felt part of the team, noting she attended group meetings and even presented her research at a symposium held at the university at the end of the summer.
She added her work in the lab confirmed her earlier decision to pursue a science career.
Memorial senior Brittney Joy works in a chemistry
lab at the Univeristy of Notre Dame
Memorial senior Elliott Denton, left, poses with his research
colleagues at the University of Notre Dame
Elliott Denton, who plans to earn a doctorate degree in chemistry and work in the medical profession, spent his lab hours growing bacteria and watching how cells react. "It was the best experience I've ever had," he stated.
"I learned so much," Elliott continued. "It's hard to learn some of these things in high school. We don't have the equipment for it here."
The Memorial trio, noting they are all hands-on learners, agreed Project SEED was the perfect learning opportunity for them. "There are things I learned in the lab over the summer that hadn't made sense to me before," Brittney explained. "The hands on approach made it easier to understand."
"It was much better than being in the classroom," Edgar said. "You felt independent."
"They gave you a job and just expected you to do it," Elliott agreed. "They treated us like adults."
Each of the students is keeping in contact with their team so they can monitor where their research is headed. While they'll all return to the lab next summer for the second season of the project, Elliott said he also plans to work over winter and spring breaks. "I don't care if I get paid for it or not," he stated. “I enjoy it and the experience is invaluable."
Edgar said the highlight of his experience was finally growing bacteria with TB in it. For Elliott, it was growing cells, extracting protein, and then purifying it, all by himself. "It was pretty cool," he stated.
Brittney admitted she never had an "a ha" moment. "We always had to start over from square one," she reported. “It's frustrating. You think something should be simple and it isn't. Or you get something to work once, but then you can't repeat it. It drives you crazy."
Now that they've experienced the excitement, and tedium, of working in a lab, all three agreed they can see it as a career. "It's hard work, but it's rewarding," Edgar stated.
The trio's Advanced Placement chemistry teacher, Heather Fellows, is obviously proud of her students' success. "We have a very strong science program here at Memorial," Fellows stated. "We also had 2 of the 4 students selected for Project SEED two years ago. One of those students ended up at St. Mary's where she is still working with the professor she started with as a high school junior."
Fellows pointed out these types of connections can be beneficial to the Memorial students for years to come. After next summer's Project Seed experience, the students will be eligible for scholarships not open to students without their level of lab experience.
"These kids have had the opportunity to work in a college lab with university professors and gain even more skills," she said. "It's phenomenal. Not many high school students could accomplish this."
Central senior Logan Edwards is a teaching assistant this year for AP chemistry teacher Sarah Pennington after completing the course, and earning a 5 on the AP exam, last year. Logan said it was Pennington who encouraged him to apply for Project SEED.
“I have always known that Logan was a natural chemist so when he was accepted into the research department at Notre Dame for the summer it was not a surprise,” Pennington said. “The experience was extremely valuable for him as it helped to solidify his career goals.
“There are very few students that I have encountered that LOVE chemistry the way that Logan does so I knew I needed to find a way to give him more resources to pursue his dreams,” she continued. “This experience was just that. I couldn’t be more proud of Logan."
Logan spent his lab time working on organo metallics, which is the study of the interactions between metal-carbon complexes. Like Brittney, Logan noted it was slightly intimidating working alongside college students and professors.
Central senior Logan Edwards works on a chemistry experiment in the school's science lab
"It felt very different," Logan said. "I went from an environment (at Central) where I was the most knowledgeable to being at the bottom again. It was like an accelerated course. I had to learn fast or get left behind."
Logan said the experience was extremely enjoyable. "I not only learned a lot about chemistry, I also was able to network with professors and students who have the same interests I do," he said. “I loved my co-workers."
While he'd already decided on a career in chemistry, the summer fellowship solidified his decision. “This was excellent real world experience," Logan said. “It should really help when I apply to college."
He listed his top three college choices as Indiana University, Ball State, or Notre Dame. Wherever he ends up, he plans to major in chemistry and is considering a career in organo metallics. "It's a big field," he noted. "There are a lot of areas to choose from."
Logan said he's not surprised four Elkhart students were selected for Project Seed as the district offers a large variety of chemistry and other science courses. "AP chemistry and honors chemistry really prepared me well," Logan stated. "I knew the basics of what I needed to know and I was able to jump right in and quickly become part of the research team."
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