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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Tilghman visit to high school fires excitement about science

During a two-day trip packed with meetings, President Shirley M. Tilghman stopped at a Chicago high school Wednesday to lead a spirited discussion with students about the genome project and opportunities that await those who continue to study science.

Tilghman's stop at Theodore Roosevelt High School was her second visit to an urban public school since she became president in June. She chose Roosevelt because of its 10-year partnership with Princeton alumni who provide tutoring, mentoring, job-shadowing and other services to students.

Anjan Rao, 15, a junior, loved talking to Tilghman about biology. "This was completely great because I want to get into Princeton and I want to be a medical examiner," said Rao. "I love genetics. I just love biology. I aced biology."

"Me too," said her friend, Jodi Sharp, 16, a sophomore who told Tilghman she wants to be a genetic engineer. Tilghman told Sharp, "Gene therapy is a very exciting field, and someday it could be the genes themselves that are the drugs."

Addressing about 300 students who are interested in science, Tilghman spoke about how scientists have learned an enormous amount about human biology by studying very small organisms. "The genes in a worm are in essence the same genes as in us, so when you are about to squash a worm just remember that you are squashing a distant relative of yours," she said.

Tilghman also met with 20 students who are members of Roosevelt's robotics club, which was started five years ago by Princeton 1969 graduate Tom Pirelli.

Hoping to show students that science can be fun, Pirelli, a software entrepreneur who devoted many hours of his childhood to building a rocket for a science fair, started the club so Roosevelt students could enter a national robotics competition. Two years later, the team placed third out of 207 teams competing in the FIRST Robotics Competition in Orlando, Fla.

The students demonstrated for Tilghman the robot they built for last year's contest and played two videos that showed them designing, assembling and testing their robots. James Preusser, 18, a senior who has been in the club for the last three years, said Tilghman's visit meant a lot to him.

"Her coming out here and talking to us and listening to us, that gives me the recognition that people on top care about us," he said. Being a member of the robotics club, Preusser said, "has helped me think about going to college. And it teaches you a lot about leadership."

Last year the club got its own machine shop at Roosevelt. A foundation started by Pirelli paid for the tools, with local machine shops pitching in. Princeton trustee Dennis Keller, a member of the class of 1963 and the chief executive officer of DeVry Inc., lent the expertise of local DeVry Institute professor Donald Ingram, who helps the students with the design of their robots.

"I thought it was a great way to introduce younger students to science and technology before they got to college and to show kids that science and engineering can be fun," Pirelli said of the club. "I wanted them to know it's not all just math and calculations. You can build things."

Several students from the robotics club have gone on to pursue engineering degrees in college. "These were kids that had no intention of going to college or to an engineering school," Pirelli said.

Tilghman was delighted by questions students asked about DNA patenting and the ethical and legal issues raised by the genome project. "One of the reasons I wanted to talk about science and not college applications is that the real reason you go to college is the new knowledge you discover can be something that changes your life," she said. Earlier she told them, "I want to give you a sense of why I've had such a great time being a biologist."

Some of the students have been studying the genome project during the Saturday college prep program run by Princeton in Chicago Schools (PICS), the group of Princeton alumni working at Roosevelt.

PICS' full-time director, Carolyn West of Princeton's class of 1990, coordinates the numerous projects in which more than 300 alumni have participated. In addition to tutoring and mentoring projects, PICS holds a career day every year for the entire school, with 35 speakers offering glimpses of their working lives. Alumni join students on summer camping trips, outings to museums and other cultural events and trips to sporting events.

Principal Miguel Trujillo said the program has been very beneficial to the school's students. "It has brought great things to Roosevelt," he said. "We're an urban school system that's strapped for cash and resources and the program has brought resources to our students. And I'm not just talking about financial resources. I'm talking about human resources."

Rao and Sharp, the students who aced their biology class, said the Saturday college prep sessions have given their college aspirations a boost. The two have visited several colleges this year with the program.

"It's helped us prepare for college and it's helped me choose what is the right college for me," Rao said. And that help will be important for Rao as she plans her future. "I want to go to a good college and a good medical school," she said.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601

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