Summer program introduces high school students to laboratory research

Lab Learning Isabelle Augensen

High school student Isabelle Augensen is investigating new ways to control cell motion in microfluidic devices in the laboratory of Jason Puchalla, a senior professional specialist in the Department of Physics. She is participating in Princeton's Laboratory Learning Program, which enables students to learn what it is like to participate in university-level research.  

Photos by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications

Angela Li takes a pinch of chalk powder from a nearby container and, as if blowing a kiss, sends a puff of powder toward her desk. A razor-thin line of flickering blue light is momentarily visible between two vertical supports. 

Li is one of about 30 high school students conducting research on campus this summer with Princeton's Laboratory Learning Program. The program provides motivated students with the opportunity to learn firsthand what it is like to participate in university-level research. 

A rising senior at The Bishop's School in La Jolla, California, Li is helping to develop a new imaging technique for looking at interior structures of cells. Traditional microscopy techniques add together all light coming from the cell, in-focus and out-of-focus, into a single view, making the resulting image blurry and difficult to interpret. Li is using lenses to manipulate a laser beam — like the blue one at her workstation — to create a thin sheet of light that illuminates only the part of the cell in perfect focus. By scanning this light sheet she is able to digitally recreate a 3-D map of its fluorescent proteins.

The Laboratory Learning Program provides students with insight into what scientific research is about, said Li's adviser, Jason Puchalla, a senior professional specialist in the Department of Physics. His lab uses techniques of biophysics to investigate protein aggregation and disaggregation, processes at the heart of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases.

"Research is not about pressing the right buttons or checking the right boxes," Puchalla said. "It's about investigating a topic that you care about, and coming up with your own ideas of where to go. It's creative and independent in a way that's hard to understand until you do it."

Lab Learning Jason Puchalla, Angela Li, Isabelle Augensen, John Li

From left, Senior Professional Specialist Jason Puchalla — with high school students Angela Li, Junlan Lu and Isabelle Augensen — uses the techniques of biophysics to study protein aggregation and disaggregation, processes at the heart of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases.

Administered through Princeton's Office of the Dean for Research, the program places students in laboratories across the campus. By designing and conducting experiments, students hone their problem-solving and data-analysis skills. They attend lab group meetings, participate in research discussions and go to seminars and other educational events.

Isabelle Augensen, who is also conducting research with Puchalla and investigating new ways to control cell motion in microfluidic devices, said that even though she grew up around science — both of her parents work in the pharmaceutical industry — she was struck by the differences between her high school science classes and research at Princeton. "The technology is very different from what's available at high school," said the rising junior at Morristown High School in Morristown, New Jersey.

Not only is the technology more advanced, but the focus of research is much more specific, according to Haley Mander, a rising senior at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. High school lessons tend to be broad rather than deep, she said. "Here, I'm concentrating on one specific field that I'd never even heard of in school."

Mander's project involves using a computer program to simulate the formation of sustainable cement. She is in the laboratory of Claire White, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, whose research focuses on developing sustainable construction materials.

One of the challenges White's group is tackling is how to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the manufacture of cement. A major component of concrete, cement is made by heating limestone and clays in a kiln, which requires burning large amounts of fossil fuels. The chemical reaction that turns limestone into cement also releases carbon dioxide. 

White's group is looking into using alternative cements, recycled from the byproducts of other industries, to create concrete with the desired properties but a smaller carbon footprint. Tests have shown that these alternative concretes perform as well as conventional concrete, but to become widely used, the long-term durability of the sustainable construction materials needs to be determined, so White is exploring ways to improve and test these materials. 

Lab Learning Claire White, Haley Mander Joscelyn Tolpin

From left, Claire White, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, provides mentorship to high school students Haley Mander and Jocelyn Tolpin, who holds a block of cement. White's research focuses on developing sustainable construction materials, including finding ways to reduce the carbon dioxide emitted during the manufacture of cement.

Another of White's summer students, Jocelyn Tolpin from Newark Academy in Livingston, New Jersey, wrote a computer program to analyze X-ray images of the microscopic cracking patterns in cement made from blast furnace slag, the leftovers of the steel smelting process. The analysis of microcracks — which sometimes form as the cement dries — could suggest new ways to reduce cracking and improve the durability of the material. Tolpin, a rising junior, learned to code online in her spare time, and occasionally used this skill as a shortcut on her math homework, but the Laboratory Learning Program provided her with an opportunity to put her programming skills into practice. 

In addition to providing opportunities for students to learn and use their skills, the program is especially valuable for students who know they want to study science but are not sure which direction to take, both students and researchers said.

"I think it is really important for students to explore potential career options," White said. "The Laboratory Learning Program at Princeton allows students to try out research areas that may be of interest. Students who are part of this program get a better sense of their own interests, which ultimately helps with their decision of what major to choose at college."

Augensen agrees. "At this age, some people know exactly what they want to do, and some are just going with the flow, taking their life day by day," Augensen said. "I'm somewhere in between. But I definitely see myself in a career related to science."