High school students get glimpse of lab life through summer program

Aug. 13, 2012 noon

Photos by Denise Applewhite



Collaboration and hands-on work are instrumental to lab research, 45 high school students are discovering at Princeton this summer. Through the University's Laboratory Learning Program, the students are exploring many ways to be inspired by science. 

"This experience has strengthened my love for science," said Shubham Chattopadhyay, who will be entering his senior year at the Lawrenceville School this fall. 

Chattopadhyay is studying the herpes simplex virus in Professor Thomas Shenk's lab. 

The biggest lesson he has learned so far, Chattopadhyay said, is not confined to test tubes and cultures — it is an understanding of the atmosphere of the lab. "School lab exercises tell you exactly what conclusion you're supposed to draw," he explained. "Here, you are learning every day, on the ball."

Learning Lab w/ prof

Chattopadhyay (left) meets with Sarah Grady, a graduate student in molecular biology, and Shenk, the James A. Elkins Jr. Professor in the Life Sciences, to discuss work in the lab. The Laboratory Learning Program provides a range of experiences for high school students to explore the research process.

Shenk, the James A. Elkins Jr. Professor in the Life Sciences, has often worked with high school students and enjoys introducing novice researchers to the world of discovery that still excites him. "You're holding results in your hands and you realize that you're the only person in the world who knows that fact. Maybe you're the only one who cares, too," he said, laughing. 

Launched in 2011 as a way to connect high school students with faculty researchers for laboratory experience and mentorship, the program is administered by the Office of the Dean for Research and is held in laboratories across the Princeton campus. Students selected for the program are integrated into the daily research experience of the laboratory, participating in meetings, seminars, research discussions and other educational activities.   

Program administrator Karla Ewalt, associate dean for research in the Office of the Dean for Research, said the program formalized collaborations between students and researchers that had taken place for many years. "We launched the Laboratory Learning Program to make sure there is access and opportunity for motivated students from all backgrounds — no matter who they know, where they live or what school they attend," she said.

Sarah Grady, a graduate student in molecular biology who mentors Chattopadhyay, said she enjoys working with high school students in the program. "Shubham comes in with an excitement and optimism that you can lose after years of working in a lab," she said.

Learning Lab construction kit

Harika Thatukuru (left) and Lauren Wood, rising seniors at North Brunswick High School and Villa Victoria Academy in Ewing, respectively, are using K'Nex, a plastic construction toy kit, to create an analog computer that can solve differential equations. Their mentor is Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Michael Littman, who has hosted high school students at Princeton for 25 years.

This excitement is echoed by fellow Laboratory Learning participants Harika Thatukuru and Lauren Wood, who will be seniors at North Brunswick High School and Villa Victoria Academy in Ewing, respectively. The students are using K'Nex, a plastic construction toy kit, to create an analog computer that can solve differential equations. 

Thatukuru said that the project gave her a new perspective on her studies. "I just took calculus this past year, and this project brings all those math equations and variables to life. It isn't just something in a textbook," she said.

Apart from the technical aspect of her research, Thatukuru has learned about the collaborative nature of college research with other students as well as professors. She also enjoys meeting researchers from other labs to learn about different scientific fields.

Thatukuru and Wood's mentor is Michael Littman, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Littman, who has sponsored high school students at Princeton for 25 years, said the main challenge is finding a project where students can learn and contribute — but one that is not so complicated that failure will mean a disaster. Citing the analog computer project, he said: "If it's successful, it's a useful tool. If not, everything's still fine."

Littman noted that one difficulty high school students face is a lack of experience working with machine tools. He said that he likes using K'Nex because "technical equipment is sometimes scary — you're afraid you're going to break it. Using K'Nex makes it more accessible, and encourages students to be hands-on." 

Giving students a sense of the interactive nature of research is one of the lessons that Coleen Murphy, an associate professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, hopes to convey. This summer she mentored Margot Debrabandere, a rising senior at the Peddie School in Hightstown, working on a project focused on finding ways to extend the age at which mothers can have healthy babies. 

Murphy said that students contact her many months before starting the program to express their interest in lab work. "They have to convince me that they want to work hard," she said. 

She noted that she herself was not able to have this kind of experience as a high school student. "I lived pretty far from any colleges," Murphy said, "and the only work I could do was calculus tutoring at a community college at night and grunt work in a research facility during the day. I wish I had an opportunity like this."