Waltham High School students get hands-on experience in the lab

Program connects teens with graduate student mentors

Photo/Mike Lovett

Jackie Jordan and her mentor Vinay Eapen, PhD’15

As a teacher at Waltham High School, Vivekanand Vimal, PhD’16, wanted more for his students. He did what could to foster inquiry and creativity in his physics and environmental science classes but it wasn't easy. 

“It’s hard to cram a real lab into 50 minutes with a classroom full of kids and state tests looming on the horizon,” Vimal recalls.  “I wanted to create an environment that escapes the dungeon of tests and grades and breaks the fetters of stale textbooks.  I wanted to take these young, passionate people and give them an opportunity to explore and gain skills in a real lab.”

After six years of teaching, Vimal decided to leave the classroom to pursue a career in research at Brandeis University but he never lost his passion for science education. At Brandeis, Vimal saw an opportunity to connect world-renowned scientists with local students and, in 2012, he reached out to Waltham High School to develop a summer internship for students interested in science and research. 

Since its launch, the program has brought more than 20 Waltham High School students to campus during the summer to work on real research projects. The students are assigned to labs based on their interests and are paired with graduate student mentors who guide them and teach them skills such as how to stain tissue samples for protein markers and how grow cell colonies. 

“The experiments that the students run are the same experiments that graduate students run,” says Vinay Eapen, PhD’15, a mentor in professor Jim Haber’s lab

Eapen mentors Jackie Jordan, a rising senior at Waltham High School. Jordan is running experiments to understand the proteins involved in repairing the DNA damage that can lead to cancer and other diseases. 

“The lab experience here is different from what you learn in the classroom because in the classroom, the labs have expected results,” says Jordan. “Here, you are doing research that's never been done before. No one knows what the answers are going to be.”

The mentors — all volunteers — get as much out of the program as the students. 

“It's a really rewarding experience,” says Eapen. “When you see your student working independently and solving problems on their own, you know you've made your mark.”

“The students get a true idea of what science is,” says Nate Miska, PhD’16, a mentor in professor Gina Turrigiano’s lab. “I didn’t get that kind of experience until well into my science education.”

Lab skills are not the only things these high school students take away. 

“This summer has taught me a lot about how to set a schedule, balance my time and organize my findings,” says Faizia Nurain Sharif, a junior at Waltham High School, who spent the summer in professor Angela Gutchess's Aging, Culture, and Cognition lab.  “I feel more prepared to go to college.”

Fostering life skills and creating a sense of community are goals of the program, Vimal says. 

“I want to create a feeling of family among the students and mentors but also between Brandeis and Waltham High School,” Vimal says. “I want these young students to know that their journey towards a career in science isn’t in darkness. There are these world-renowned scientists right up the street who can light the way.”

This year's mentors include Achini Opathalage, Avijit Bakshi, Elizaveta Khlestova, Jonathan Jackson, Nate Miska, Peter Millar, Sumantra Sarkar, Vinay Eapen and Vivekanand Pandey Vimal. For more information about the program or to volunteer as a mentor for next year, contact Vivekanand Vimal at vvimaldhye@gmail.com

Categories: Research, Science and Technology

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