Not many high school students have the opportunity to modify flavonoids for increased antioxidant power to fight sickle-cell disease, explore methods to inhibit chemotherapy-induced hair loss, or create nanoparticles that adsorb lead and copper from contaminated water.
But that is exactly what students taking part in North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics’ Summer Research & Innovation Programs Research in Chemistry are working toward.
“I feel like I am learning a lot of nuanced things. I am learning how to run a potentiostat and run a CV and polish gold electrodes – stuff that you don’t normally see in a class as usual,” said Ruhi Roy, a student from Charlotte who is attempting to make a new diagnostic tool to aid in lupus treatment. “It’s really fun to me because it’s actually what I am interested in and want to delve more into. I want to go into immunology, so this is just really fun for me.”
NCSSM offers the summer program to its residential and online students at no cost. Rising seniors live on campus and work full time discovering more about a topic they’re passionate about. From the physical and life sciences and humanities to entrepreneurship and mathematics, SRIP offers a multitude of research opportunities across disciplines.
The SRIP Research in Chemistry intensive three-week laboratory research experience allows residential NCSSM students to conduct professional, hands-on research, often for the first time. Because students only have three weeks to conduct the bulk of their research, their scopes are narrower than what you might find in a graduate-level lab, but their projects and methods resemble what you’d find in professional research labs.
“I think if you’re not familiar with the school or what we are doing, you’d probably never expect the level of research that we are doing,” said NCSSM Instructor of Chemistry Dr. Tim Anglin, who leads Summer Research in Chemistry. “The tools and techniques and the kind of questions the students are asking – and how far they are getting in answering those questions – can often look every bit as strong as a second-year grad student’s project.”
To fit the bulk of the experience into the three weeks of SRIP, students spend time during their junior year, usually in the Research in Chemistry semester course, coming up with their research proposal and then conducting background research on their projects. They start the summer program ready to jump into the lab, learn procedures and how to use lab equipment, how to write and perfect their own protocols, and how to gather and interpret their data.
“This is my first experience working in the lab,” says Spriha Manjigani, a student from Charlotte, North Carolina, who is researching whether she can make a nanoparticle carrier that will inhibit chemotherapy-induced hair loss. “What has surprised me most is how long the process takes. We did a lot of literature reviews, and those papers make it sound so easy because they only tell you the stuff that worked for them. What I’ve learned is that even writing my own methods as I am going through, there’s so much trial and error that doesn’t end up in the final product.”
That process, Anglin says, is one of the most crucial experiences in SRIP Chemistry.
“In terms of growth, one of the biggest things we see in students is the ability to problem-solve,” he said. “They come in with a procedure that we’ve done our best to vet, but the procedures don’t always work the way they are supposed to. Most of the students encounter some obstacle where things don’t come out the way they intended. And that’s one of the things that they have to figure out – that’s what we see in the summer, is that resilience.”
That was Roy’s experience with her lupus experiment.
“It’s not as easy as I thought it would be,” she said. “I thought it would be one trial and go. If you prep as you go, if you have the most detailed procedure you can, I thought that you would get the results you expected. But it’s not like that. You have to go at it multiple, multiple times. You can’t be prepared (only) for the result you want.”
What helps the students get past these obstacles is their passion for their projects and their determination to see them through.
“I am hoping to learn more about water contamination and what can be done to prevent it, but also once it’s happened, what can be done to reverse it,” said Amelia Linton, from Clayton, North Carolina.
Linton is attempting to attach nanoparticles that adsorb copper and lead to biochar – i.e. the nanoparticles will hold copper and lead molecules as a thin film on the surface of biochar particles – to remove heavy metals from contaminated water.
“I have always been into water contamination and drinking water, and I want to know how to make clean water more accessible for people,” she said.“If this works out, I could actually use it to take out heavy metals from water. All of us have real things that have important, real-life impact. So, knowing if we do our project, and if it works, that it could have a real impact is one of the most fun parts of SRIP.”
It’s that possible payoff that motivates many scientists, Roy included.
“Even with all the failures, I still like it,” she said.
Anglin aims to make SRIP a highly collaborative experience, even as the students are working on their independent projects.
“We give the students technical training that they might need on a particular tool, and then once a student has been trained on an instrument or method, they become the resource for the next student that needs that,” he explains.
“By the end of the program, they are doing a lot of peer training, which allows me and the teacher’s assistants to spend more focused time with the students as they need help to troubleshoot.”
This collaboration also extends to students in other SRIP programs. Clara Smith, who is a residential student from Cornelius, North Carolina, is taking part in Glaxo Summer Research in Biology but has found herself a regular resident of the chemistry lab.
Smith is working to isolate and purify the capsular polysaccharide on the outside of a gram-negative bacteria to see if it leads to cellular death in c. elegans, which are 1mm worms. If her research works, it could suggest further study into new approaches to cancer treatment.
Smith says that having the chance to collaborate with the chemistry lab has been foundational to her research, and she’s grateful for the opportunity to listen to and work alongside others.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do so many of my purification methods or understand so much of my project without the help of the chemistry teachers and the Chemistry Department,” she said.“We’ve been able to build off each other and learn from each other, which has been so helpful. I thought working in a lab was so singular and internal, when in reality you’re working with this big web of people who are all here to support you, even if you’re doing different things and different tasks all at once. Finding that community in our lab space has been really vital.”
Ultimately, it is this growth of independence and celebration of community that are at the heart of SRIP.
“This has been one of the best classes I’ve taken,” Linton said, “just because, getting the resources we have, I think it is incredible that at a high school we can do what we do. But also, the friendships inside of Research in Chemistry are really good. There are a lot of people who I would never have met or talked to if not for this class. Getting to be close friends with these people and do work with them, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a really good experience not only to do research but to make really great friends.”
Students agreed that any junior interested in applying for the program should go for it, regardless of their past research experience.
“I didn’t really think I had a great chance because I didn’t have a ton of chemistry knowledge,” said Linton. “But I thought this sounded interesting, and I am passionate about water. You can still have a successful project without being a chemistry genius, or whatever your program is. You need to be someone who doesn’t give up, who works hard and can communicate.”