High schoolers perform college-level research in IME, chemistry labs

For six weeks this summer, five high school students from Chicago-area schools worked as advanced youth lab interns in Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME) and chemistry labs at the University of Chicago.

A partnership between the IME and the After School Matters organization, the internship allowed students to perform college-level laboratory research with IME professors Juan de Pablo, Jun Huang, Melody Swartz, and Tian Zhong and chemistry professor John Anderson. This was the program’s first year.

“I feel I got a true experience as a researcher,” said Janell Mason, a graduate of Morgan Park High School and an incoming freshman at the University of Missouri, as she discussed encountering and overcoming failures in the lab and becoming adept at finding multiple solutions to a single problem. Mason, who plans to pursue biomedical engineering, worked in Huang’s lab.

A creative, collaborative environment

Working in collaborative teams with graduate students or postdoctoral mentors on specific projects—like prototyping, building, and modifying 3D cell culture platforms to allow cells to grow into 3D structures; or using quantum-mechanical simulation packages to analyze how polymer strain spreads to the molecular scale—the interns:

  • Developed and defined their understanding of experimental design
  • Collected and analyzed data
  • Used research techniques and tools
  • Reflected on the problems investigated and the work undertaken to solve those problems

The youth asked questions, tapped into resources, took risks, and developed their confidence in doing science. Over time, they gained independence and responsibility for aspects of their projects.

“Science does not follow a linear path,” said Sebastian Acevedo, a graduate of St. Ignatius College Prep and incoming freshman at Loyola University Chicago. Acevedo worked in Zhong’s lab. “It takes a lot of detours and failures before even the first few steps to a solution are made.”

Inspiring STEM careers

The internship program aims to motivate high school students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers by allowing them to experience the day-to-day work of scientific research in an innovative, self-driven, team-based environment. It will host a new cohort of high school students during the summer of 2019.