Stony Brook mentors guide H.S. scientists

Rachel Davis, 18, a Smithtown East High School

Rachel Davis, 18, a Smithtown East High School graduate, is going to MIT in the fall. She was in the Garcia summer research program at Stony Brook University and was selected as an Intel Science Talent Search finalist. "Stony Brook labs are so unique because the professors legitimately care about the students and how well they understand all of the material. With the help of professors, graduate students and undergraduate students, I was able to devise a project that had real-life applications, and Intel STS [Science Talent Search] recognized this project by selecting me as a finalist," Davis said. "Without the help and guidance of people at Stony Brook, I would have never have been able to do as well as I did." (March 13, 2012) (Credit: Charlie Archambault)

Daniel Wang focused intently on a magnified 3-D image of DNA in a Stony Brook University laboratory. The color monitor showed damage repair protein, which works to fix DNA in ways that scientists do not yet fully understand, as turquoise-colored bubbles resting atop a cluster of silvery-white strands.

To get the close-up look, Wang was using a $40-million supercomputer available to him as a Simons fellow at Stony Brook, where more than 100 students are attending this summer's seven-week scientific research incubator.

"Stony Brook is this powerhouse for research," said the 17-year-old, who will be a senior at W. Tresper Clarke High School in Westbury. "There are many students taking high school research who want to get into a lab here."

The university's solid reputation as a proving ground for young scientists has been further burnished this year, as students mentored by SBU professors gained top awards and international attention in the Intel Science Talent Search and Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. Among them were Nithin Tumma of Michigan, the nation's top Intel prizewinner, and Brentwood High School's Samantha Garvey, the Intel semifinalist whose plight as a homeless teen garnered headlines.

This past school year alone, Stony Brook mentors guided 30 high school students who were named semifinalists in the Intel competition -- a record eight were among the 40 finalists -- and 31 semifinalists and 11 regional finalists in the Siemens Competition.

"Having the competitions and the success is great. It brings attention to Stony Brook," said Karen Kernan, director of the Simons Summer Research Program. "But it is not the main reason the students or faculty do it. It is a great entry to get a sense of what university research is like and gives them some direction of where they want to go."

Research slots coveted

Each year, students across the country compete for these coveted spots in university research programs, as work conducted outside of high school classrooms has become crucial for budding scientists' success. Hofstra University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory also provide such opportunities for high school students.

At Stony Brook, the university is drawing more applicants from other states, especially from California and Texas. In its summer programs, participants conduct real-world experiments under expert mentors as they look at solving complex problems, from creating safer irrigation methods to battling cancerous cells. They often finish their work at their home high schools.

"They gave you a lot of independence, which is pretty important if you are a high school student looking to do research," said Tumma, 18, of Port Huron, Mich.

Research at Stony Brook is centered on two programs. One is supported by the Garcia Center for Polymers at Engineered Interfaces, which enrolled about 70 teens this year and is part of Stony Brook's engineering school. The other is supported by the Simons Foundation, a private group based in New York City and incorporated by Jim and Marilyn Simons with the mission of advancing scientific research. About 35 teens are Simons fellows this summer studying in a variety of campus labs. Students can either commute or live in dorms. The Garcia Center was established in 2000, and the Simons Summer Research Fellowship in 1984.

More than 300 students applied this year for the Garcia Center's program, said Miriam Rafailovich, the program's director. They perform research at the forefront of materials science and technology, participate in seminars led by experts and conduct a large-group experiment before selecting a project.

High school teachers also participate, and students' day-to-day lab work is guided by Garcia faculty and graduate students. They have fun, too, with barbecues and field trips included in the curriculum.

"They are always asking questions, and it reminds you what you don't know yet," said doctoral student Chungcheh Chang, 29.

Reyna Guzman, 17, who will be a senior at Brentwood High School, lives in the dorm during the week. She is studying the effects of toxic metal nanoparticles on plant cells in the university's chemical engineering lab, and hopes her effort in environmental science leads to safer water for plants and crops.

In a university lab, "We can image our plants with higher-powered microscopes, we can test stress levels on the plants with supersensitive machinery, and analyze particle movement within the plant by shooting light rays through our samples," she said.

Dedication and drive

Sneha Chittabathini, 16, a rising senior at Lawrence High School, commutes 48 miles one way each day from her home to work in the polymer lab, incorporating a derivative of graphite into solar cells to make them more efficient.

On campus, "It's a good experience . . . you meet people like you and you connect with them," she said. "And it's really different in school. There, there are more simple projects; they are not as intense."

Students who are in the Simons program, a much smaller group than those at the Garcia Center, work more independently, and some have secured a mentor before the start of the program.

Rajkumar Pammal, 16, of Dix Hills, who will be a senior at Commack High School, was first interested in research in the eighth grade. Earlier this year, he applied and was accepted into the lab of chemistry professor Iwao Ojima, an internationally recognized scientist who is director of the Institute of Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery.

For his topic, Pammal was inspired by two teachers at his school who had cancer. He is using synthetic organic-chemistry reactions to create a drug conjugate that has the ability to carry massive amounts of potent anticancer agents directly to cancer cells.

"I am especially honored to be working in this specific research lab because of its innovative approaches to combating the deadly disease," Pammal said.

Ojima often accepts only three students and then guides them through the research process along with the graduate students in his lab.

"To me, it's nice to see very young talented students who have not been exposed to college chemistry yet," said Ojima, who mentored two Plainview-Old Bethpage students who won the team grand prize in the Siemens Competition in 2007.

Forging valuable ties

High school students who work in a university lab are more likely to continue their science careers to earn master's or doctoral degrees, said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation.

"The relationships students can form with graduate students in the lab, as well as the faculty, can be extremely valuable," she said, providing "mentors and sponsors for their future careers, coaches and advisers for their current research, and that crucial opportunity to argue and discuss ideas and research findings that is at the heart of how real science is done."

Wang, working under the mentorship of noted chemistry professor Carlos Simmerling, is looking at whether supercomputers could offer a modern solution to understanding the complexity of biomolecules associated with deadly diseases.

Simmerling, who was the mentor of the 2009 Siemens grand-prize winner, said he looks for students who will make the most of the seven weeks they have in the lab -- a time period he said is too short.

"We want them to see that science is not just learning what's in textbooks," he said. "It's about having fun and being creative while trying to solve problems that will make a difference in the world."

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