Local students conduct college-level research through STEM internship program

Brianna Ross loves being in a laboratory. But what she really enjoys is conducting her own experiments.

The Lindblom Math and Science Academy student says at school, typically, teachers lead experiments, or students participate by performing a part of them, but not an entire experiment from start to finish. Being able to gather her own data and satisfy her own curiosities was very appealing to her.

And that’s just what she’s done throughout the summer as one of the STEM Lab Internship students with the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago. STEM Lab interns conduct research at the college level with the guidance of UChicago faculty, graduate students, and a team of educators who give them a better understanding of different STEM careers and how science and engineering professionals work. The program is a partnership with After Schools Matters, a nonprofit group that provides after-school and summer programming to about 20,000 Chicago teens each year.

“I feel like I can really conduct experiments in a way that will actually answer my questions,” she said. “I think that was really cool.”

Ross and other interns started the program with a one-week introduction to research bootcamp designed by Asst. Prof. Allison Squires to support students in their research training. Ross said being able to conduct battery research and work with the laboratory equipment in Asst. Prof. Chibueze Amanchukwu’s lab was an experience unlike any other. Her experiments focused on polymer-in-salt electrolyte, where she assessed how different amounts of polymer in the electrolyte affected the conductivity of a battery. She hopes such experiments can help not only a battery overall be more efficient but also, eventually, contribute toward research that can make batteries better for the environment.

As a child, Ross was always drawn to science and engineering and thought she would become a doctor. The internship program helped her flesh out these interests, she said, and combine her enthusiasm for medicine with chemistry and research. Now, the rising junior at Lindblom who lives in the South Chicago neighborhood is planning to pursue biomedical sciences and molecular engineering.

The program was also helpful, she said, in its mentorship, which helped her become more confident as a speaker and in explaining her own data through weekly presentations and feedback.

“I don’t like speaking in public, I would always read off my slide and not make any eye contact with my audience. Now I’m gaining more confidence in my presentation skills,” she said. “Not only have I grown as a researcher, I’ve grown as an individual as well.”

She also learned more about the college application process, she said, like what makes a good recommendation letter. And she said working alongside professionals whose entire career is in the field she aspires to join was inspiring.

“It’s been amazing, actually,” she said. “I was really nervous at first, but everyone was kind and helpful. They’re just like me. They’re trying to find out their own projects. It gave me almost like a sense of confidence, like I can do some of the things that these adults are doing. We’re all just trying to solve a similar question.”

She’s hoping to return to the University of Chicago next summer. Already perusing her options, she’s had her interest piqued by a cancer research program available to teenagers.

“Research is all about answering questions based on curiosities,” she said. “I want to apply that somehow to help people in the medical field.”