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Program Brings Area High School Students, Teachers into Caltech Labs

Summer Research Connection promotes curiosity, scientific literacy, and research skills

Working in a Caltech chemical engineering lab this summer, Maggie Higginbotham spends a lot of her time coaxing bacteria to make extremely small bags of gas that can be used to improve the diagnostic abilities of ultrasound equipment.

While that task may be fairly routine for the faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates in the lab, it's a brand-new experience for Higginbotham: she's still in high school.

Higginbotham, a 10th-grade student at Blair High School in Pasadena, is one of 22 local high school students—and three teachers—participating in Caltech's Summer Research Connection (SRC). The six-week program brings high school students and teachers to campus to conduct research in a dozen labs in fields ranging from chemistry, physics, and materials science to chemical engineering, astronomy, and planetary science.

After several weeks in the program, Higginbotham says working as a member of the research team "has been a fantastic experience that's allowed me to see what doing research is really like. I've learned how to use the tools and how to handle myself in a lab."

And that is precisely the point of the program, according to Mitch Aiken, associate director for educational outreach for the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach, which runs the program each summer.

Aiken says the goal of the program is threefold: to provide graduate students and postdocs with the opportunity to practice mentoring, teaching, and polishing their scientific communications skills; to offer K–12 teachers opportunities to learn techniques that they can take back to their classrooms; and to give local high school students firsthand exposure to how research is conducted at the university level. "SRC also provides an avenue for many researchers on campus to engage in community outreach and meet a key component of the Broader Impacts fulfillment requirement of National Science Foundation grants," Aiken says.

Working for 20 hours a week in the lab of Mikhail G. Shapiro, assistant professor of chemical engineering, Higginbotham joined Marshall High School student Thomas Scott as well as Garrett Gibson, a teacher from Environmental Charter Middle School in Gardena. The team's work focuses on growing flasks of bacteria and archaea that produce gas vesicles—air-filled protein structures that the cells normally use as flotation devices. The Shapiro lab is developing the vesicles as imaging agents for ultrasound, making it possible for this imaging technology to visualize specific cells and molecules in the body.

In the lab, Higginbotham and Gibson work under the mentorship of research technician Dina Malounda, who has been teaching them proper lab techniques such as purifying gas vesicles from bacteria that will be used by other scientists in the lab for their experiments.

Malounda says SRC provides "a rare opportunity for high school students and K–12 teachers to witness and experience the atmosphere in an actual scientific research laboratory … and to interact with scientists."

Higginbotham and Gibson say they are learning a great deal about the process of conducting research by participating in regular lab discussions where all of the group's members pitch ideas, talk about their projects and goals, and ask questions about each other's work.

"I love asking questions," Higginbotham says. "It's always great when you can ask questions and learn."

Gibson praised SRC as intellectually rigorous and rewarding for teachers like himself and added that it greatly helps to "demystify research for students. Going from being an undergraduate to a PhD student is a big leap, but it's not impossible. Having an experience like this can make it much less scary for them."

The program culminates with a seminar day on August 10, when student-teacher-mentor teams from the various campus labs will explain their work to their peers and invited guests during formal 10-minute presentations followed by question-and-answer periods.

After being involved in her lab's weekly meetings, Higginbotham says she feels well prepared for her presentation: "I've seen how to present ideas at meetings and now know how to set up our information and explain it."

Shapiro says the program also serves a crucial function as a channel for "investing in future PhD students. Research relies on young, ambitious people, and this can help us encourage them to become scientists."

SRC is one of several programs for youth running on campus this summer, including iD Tech Camps, Alexa Café, Project Scientist, Community Science Academy, Da Vinci Camp, STEAM:CODERS, Education Unlimited, and Pathways to STEM Cell Science. More than 300 students, ranging from preschoolers to high school seniors are on campus on the days when all camps and programs are in session.

Written by Jon Nalick