Summer Science Program Shows High Schoolers That Anyone Can Be a Scientist

Group photo of participating students and volunteers for the 2023 Summer Science Program. Bottom: Guided by their mentors, the students carry out experiments at the bench.
Group photo of participating students and volunteers for the 2023 Summer Science Program. Bottom: Guided by their mentors, the students carry out experiments at the bench.

This program was made possible in part by an ASCB COMPASS Outreach Grant.

If you were to ask a kid what they wanted to be when they grow up, the answer likely depends on what careers they have been exposed to. If you asked this same question of a high school student, their answers are still likely to be skewed towards careers they are most familiar with, or by this age even negatively influenced by common misconceptions about what it takes to pursue a career in fields like science, math and engineering.

Founded in 2021 and now moving into its third year, our Summer Science Program aims to expose high school students to biomedical research, with the long-term goal of encouraging and inspiring the next generation of scientists and ultimately advancing diversity and representation in the sciences. We developed this program with the Boston University-Boston Medical Center (BU-BMC) Section of Hematology & Medical Oncology’s Anti-Racism Committee. Our affiliation with BMC, which has the foundational mission of expanding accessibility and equity in medicine, and our immediate proximity to underserved communities, position us well to make a positive impact.

Through the program each year, we bring 5–6 high school students into the lab for the week, with a focus on working with students from underserved communities and underrepresented backgrounds. The students learn from and connect with scientists at BU-BMC. Our goal is for our participants to meet active scientists from similar backgrounds as themselves and gain confidence in a research lab setting. We work towards ensuring the students acquire a better understanding of the skills and techniques used in biomedical research and of the paths they can follow to become research scientists. For our 2023 program, the COMPASS Outreach grant from ASCB was essential in providing funds for all supplies used in our laboratory activities. Additional funds from the Section of Hematology & Medical Oncology covered other student expenses such as food and travel, as well as stipends to lessen financial barriers to participation.

On the first day of the 2023 program, the students were introduced to general lab etiquette and learned basic lab safety, including how/when to wear different personal protective gear, how to properly remove contaminated gloves, and how to correctly dispose of biological waste. Each student received a personal laboratory notebook, and we discussed the importance of keeping a careful record of experimental details. The students toured our aquatics facility, where we introduced them to two model organisms, Xenopus and zebrafish, and talked about how model organisms are used in research. We then taught the students about genetic inheritance through a Punnett square activity using zebrafish stripes as an example trait. Each activity included a detailed protocol that they followed and recorded in their lab notebooks. On subsequent days, the students learned how to pipette, during which they made artistic designs using colored water in 96-well plates. They also cultured unknown microbes from swabs of surfaces around campus and learned to transform laboratory E. coli. Each activity built on skills acquired during the previous days, as they moved on to identify plasmids using diagnostic restriction digests. Additionally, they learned about the pH of different solutions, performed hematoxylin and eosin staining of cells, and discussed basic bioinformatic tools and techniques. They were even able to watch microdissections of Xenopus embryos and advanced live confocal imaging of zebrafish embryos with various fluorescent transgenes. Having the program over the course of a full week helped us get to know the students well and tailor the experiments to complement their interests and previous experiences.

A major focus of our program is to support students in pursuing careers that interest them, which have ranged from jobs in forensic science to medicine and biomedical research. On the third day of the program, we assembled a panel of BU-BMC scientists from diverse backgrounds, ranging from undergraduate researchers to principal investigators, who addressed questions about careers in science and spoke about their own personal journeys into science. On the last day, we organized a resume workshop which included a discussion about how the students could describe their participation in the program and the skills they gained through it.

Lastly, and perhaps the most unique and impactful component of our program: each student was matched with a long-term mentor (a researcher at BU-BMC) who will offer continued career support to the student as they prepare for and make their post-graduation plans. Students and their chosen mentors meet at least once every six months to discuss and support the students’ progress towards achieving their career/life goals. Examples of this mentoring support include advising the students on college programs, matching them with internships, and proofreading their college application essays. Although our cohort is small, we believe our emphasis on ongoing and tailored mentorship ensures a more meaningful and lasting impact.

With support from ASCB, we were able to put together a fun and fulfilling program for our cohort of highly engaged students. We’re thrilled that the students seemed to have as much fun as we did while working with them, as evidenced by their feedback:

“I really enjoyed my time here and loved how welcoming the environment was and how friendly everyone was. If I could come back, I most definitely would!”

“[This program] definitely made me want to major in the biology field. At first, I wanted to but now I REALLY want to.”

“The most valuable skill I learned/gained is to accept I was wrong or to keep trying when the results you get don’t match up with what you wanted.”

“Before the program I didn’t really have any idea of what happens in a biology lab, so I have a better understanding and more interest now that I’ve seen some of the elements.”

“The most valuable skills were the advice about not saying no to yourself and reaching out to a bunch of different people/programs (even repeatedly).”

Be sure to check out our video that captured moments from the program and other information about the program on our lab website. We are excited to continue developing and expanding our Summer Science Program in the years to come!

Find out more about the ASCB COMPASS Outreach Grant Program and how to apply.

Authors include: Gwen Beacham, PhD (Postdoc), Zewde Ingram (PhD Student), Khaliun Enkhbayar and Zoya Amer (Research Associates), and Elliott Hagedorn, PhD (Assistant Professor) of the Hagedorn lab at Boston University-Boston Medical Center, who each help organize the Summer Science Program by recruiting students, acquiring funding, designing and teaching activities, and serving as long-term mentors. The Hagedorn lab studies the basic cellular and molecular mechanisms that guide the migration of blood, immune, and cancer cells into and out of distinct tissues, primarily using the zebrafish embryo as a model organism.

About the Author:

This post was collaboratively written by several ASCB staff members.