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Hunter College biology professor Jill Bargonetti mentors students who express a clear interest in her line of research.
HHMI investigator Susan Ackerman's first time hosting a high school student in her Bar Harbor lab almost turned her off the experience. The student, from an area high school, seemed perfect at first glance but science wasn't her first priority. “She saw it as ‘I'll bop in for an hour and a half,'” Ackerman recalls. “Experiments take longer than that.”
Ackerman learned an important lesson: ask the right questions before the student gets into the lab. “You tend to get overachievers anyway, and they tend to have their lives really booked,” says Ackerman, who has successfully hosted several high school students since. “I think I had been expecting more commitment from that first young woman than she was able to give.”
Now Ackerman always interviews potential students to probe about other commitments. Dedication to the lab is not usually a problem during The Jackson Lab's highly competitive summer program, where students from all over the country live near campus and work in the lab full time. But students who do research during the academic year often have many other commitments.
For the past few years, Hunter College biology professor Jill Bargonetti has welcomed students who go through the HHMI-funded preparatory class. But she still makes certain the students are interested in her work rather than in just getting a project for the science fair. “I'm looking to see who they are. Are they interested for some meaningful reason—not because they want a tick on their resume?” she explains. “[An answer] I don't like: I'm preparing to go to medical school.”
Bargonetti doesn't expect every student to become a scientist, but she wants to find someone who is genuinely considering research as a career. She also asks basic questions to make sure the student understands that lab work is not all moments of brilliant discovery: Can you stay late if an experiment takes longer than expected? Will you do the dishes?
In Steven Kozlowski's lab, high school student Peter Sylvers peers into a microscope and clicks a counter, checking to see that the mouse white blood cells he harvested haven't died overnight. Unfortunately, many have. So he consults with staff fellow Kamalpreet Arora, his mentor in Kozlowski's Food and Drug Administration lab on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus, to decide on the next step.
She has good news: the remaining live cells can still be put to good use. So Sylvers gathers up rectangular dishes of bright red and blue liquids he will use to stain the cells, which he has affixed to glass slides. He carefully dips two slides in each dish and readies them for a trip to a microscope room.
“It is amazing that I can even do what I'm doing right now—keep cells alive and put them on slides,” says Sylvers, a senior at Damascus High School in Maryland. Two months before, he had never set foot in a professional lab, though he had always been interested in science. Now, with mentorship from Kozlowski, Arora, and the lab's previous high school student, he can work on research projects almost independently. And the best part for Kozlowski and Arora: he will be around for another nine months, and maybe more.
Photo: Matthew Septimus