High school students pursue hands-on research through summer program

Lab Learning index

During the Laboratory Learning Program, a summer research opportunity organized by the Office of the Dean for Research at Princeton University, 45 high school students were paired with faculty members to carry out research projects in science and engineering labs across campus. Above, Jackie Jones of the Lawrenceville School uses an instrument to measure the photosynthetic response of different types of leaves to varying levels of water and carbon dioxide in the lab of Kelly Caylor, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Photo by John Jameson


When Lawrenceville School rising senior Jackie Jones began her 10-week stay in one of Princeton's engineering labs this June, she looked forward to performing rigorous scientific research for the first time in her young academic career. 

"I didn't really know exactly what to expect," said Jones, who is conducting research this summer in the Ecohydrology Lab of Kelly Caylor, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. "I didn't know what it'd be like to come into a university-level lab as a high school student, and if I'd just be fetching coffee. But I've gotten to do real fieldwork, take measurements and work with and help other members of the lab. It's been really fun."

Lab Learning Akhils

From left, Akhil Bandi of John P. Stevens High School and Akhil Parlapalli of Princeton Day School, both rising seniors, and rising junior Grace Glovier of the Hotchkiss School attend a lab meeting of Professor of Psychology Alexander Todorov's research group. The students learned about the collaborative nature of research through an experiment on social perceptions. (Photo by Danielle Alio)

Jones, whose project centers on characterizing how different species of trees compete photosynthetically for common water sources during drought, is one of 45 high school students pursuing summer experiments through the University's Laboratory Learning Program. Established in 2011 to centralize student-faculty mentorship opportunities that many professors already offered to high school students during the summer, the program is organized by the Office of the Dean for Research. The program pairs students with a Princeton faculty member to carry out their own hands-on research projects in physics, chemistry, engineering, psychology and molecular biology laboratories.  

"The students who take advantage of the program are highly motivated to find out what it means to be a practicing engineer or scientist," said program administrator Karla Ewalt, associate dean for research in the Office of the Dean for Research. "Our goal is to provide a structure that enables faculty to bring students into their field and teach them for the summer."

Lab Learning Wolf

Jackie Jones works on an experiment with mentor Adam Wolf, a postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology. Jones said about her summer in the lab: "I've gotten to do real fieldwork, take measurements and work with and help other members of the lab. It's been really fun." (Photo by John Jameson)

Adam Wolf, a postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology and Jones' mentor, observed that the program pushes students to overcome the challenges of scientific research. 

"The biggest difference between working in a lab and taking classes is that in a lab not everything is prepared so that it's problem-free," Wolf said. "Jackie's done a great job identifying problems and finding ways to make them right. She's gone from having an abstract perspective of how plants live to having a concrete ability to understand the math, to make measurements and produce publication-quality data."

Wolf's thoughts were echoed by Alexander Todorov, a professor of psychology who is mentoring five students as they design their own experiments to test different aspects of how people perceive and judge faces. He observed how students' understanding of strong experimental design is crucial to their thinking as scientists. 

"What I really try to teach them is about the principles of experimental design and how to think about experiments in general," said Todorov, who is impressed by the quality of the students' work. "I would happily advise any of them if they were to be senior students in my lab." 

Two of Todorov's students, Akhil Bandi and Akhil Parlapalli, rising seniors from John P. Stevens High School in Edison, N.J., and the Princeton Day School, respectively, are working together to test the effects of skin color and facial characteristics on social perceptions and an individual's likelihood of conviction in criminal court. The experiment was partially inspired by the recent Trayvon Martin murder trial. Together, they pointed out that science involves a great deal more than just planning an experiment and carrying it out alone. 

"Doing this, I learned that research is very collaborative," Bandi said. "You have to be open to many more ideas than your own — you have to understand that your ideas will change along the way." 

"The most important thing is don't be stuck in your ideas — don't assume you're right," Parlapalli added. "Very often, you'll be wrong, so you have to have open ideas about what you're doing and about taking different approaches." 

Grace Glovier, another student in the Todorov lab and a rising junior at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., noted the personal responsibility that accompanies a lab position. 

"What I've learned is how you have to be responsible for your own work," she said. "In the end it's up to you if you get results based on how well you planned out your experiment."

Lab Learning Villaneuva

Angelo Villanueva (center), a rising senior at Union City High School, is conducting research on lasso peptides in the lab of James Link, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering. His graduate student mentors Hoang Lu (left) and Caitlin Allen (right) say that the program is about the people as well as the science. (Photo by Danielle Alio)

For Angelo Villanueva, a rising senior at Union City High School, dedication to lab responsibilities is especially important.

"It's not just a one-day thing where you start in the morning and get out at 3 o'clock," said Villanueva, who is doing research in the lab of James Link, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering. "It's days and weeks of work, and your results are based on your efforts." 

Villanueva's project involves investigating the antibiotic properties of a family of proteins known as "lasso peptides" due to their unique physical shape. "If you don't put enough effort into it, you'll come in every day and be lost," he said. "But if you spend every day ready and do what you need to do, you can get great results." 

Hoang Lu and Caitlin Allen, Villanueva's graduate student mentors, pointed out that early lab experience benefits students beyond the lab bench as well. 

"We've also talked about what to do with life, what Angelo's interests are, how to work toward them, what college to choose, everything, any life issues, " Lu said. "The program isn't just about the science — it's about the people." 

"I interned in a lab when I was in high school, and I largely attribute where I am today to that opportunity," Allen added. "I hope high school students here at Princeton have similar experiences to inspire their interest in science and engineering."