A Blossoming at the End of the STEM Fields

Monday, August 13, 2012
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On July 27th, the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Morse Hall became a stunning showcase for research posters presented by Project SMART participants. Here among the soaring interior balconies, forty students of local and international origin had the opportunity to share their newfound knowledge with family, friends, teachers, and other supporters through this time-honored tradition. Provost John Aber said of the impressive exhibit, “I am astounded by the sophistication of the knowledge displayed in these posters.”

An important part of the closing ceremony, the presentations gave the students an opportunity to discuss with the public a portion of their knowledge gained during the four-week Project SMART program, named for Science and Mathematics Achievement through Research Training. Project SMART fulfills a need for rigorous academic achievement during the summer by challenging high school students who seek academic advancement in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Under the guidance of professors from the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) and the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (CEPS), students explored topics ranging from detecting toxic cyanobacteria in our lakes and streams to better understanding how we can use nanoparticles in delivering drugs during cancer treatment.

“Dr. Minocha encouraged us to read the most recent biotech news,” said Angela Kong, a student from Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California, about the program’s director. Her interest was piqued by recent discoveries that hold promise for the effectiveness of natural compounds Prostratin and Bryostatin in targeting both active and latent HIV cells to completely eliminate the virus from the body. “We can chemically synthesize our own compounds,” said Kong, encouraged by scientists’ ability to develop synthetic analogues of the natural compounds for use in treatment.

Highlights of student achievement from the four-week experiential program, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, were featured in local and national media outlets.  In addition to the space science students’ major project that launched a balloon into space, other Project SMART participants traveled to the Isles of Shoals to study crabs or climbed Mount Moosilauke to conduct climate change research that examines the effects of altitude on tree size and forest composition.   

Athena Jennings of the King’s Academy in Jordan chose the Project SMART program to further her knowledge of marine biology. “We went out to the Isles of Shoals one day and stayed overnight – collecting at night and in the morning,” said Jennings of the research she and her classmates conducted on the species, gender, and size of carapace of invasive and native crabs found in Sandpiper and Smith Coves. “I enjoyed being in an environment with lots of students focused on science,” said Jennings whose mother, Cheryl Jennings, and science teacher, Mark Kibler, both flew from Jordan to attend the Project SMART closing ceremony.

“Athena grew a lot,” said Cheryl Jennings. “It was really stimulating for her to see how much is out there that can be explored. She can use this as a launching pad, and I think she will.”

In addition to family, supporters from around the state came to learn about the students’ research and congratulate them on their studies. Rakesh Minocha, a Research Scientist with United States Forest Service (a major supporter of the program this year), addressed the crowd as a representative from her agency and praised the students for their enthusiasm to learn about diverse areas of science, their cooperation, and respect during the program. Special assistant for constituent services at the office of Jeanne Shaheen, Sherri Pierce, attended on behalf of the senator to read from her letter that states, “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish with perseverance and hard work.” And Joy Hansel and John Mackenna were present as representatives of Liberty Mutual – also a generous supporter of the program – encouraging students to continue their studies and, eventually, consider applying for work with the company. “We benefit from smart minds,” said Hansel.

High school student Yazan Obeidi from Guelph, Ontario, presented information about G-protein coupled receptors, which he often read about in the biotechnology news he had been reviewing on a regular basis. “G-protein coupled receptors are involved in so many of the processes in the human body,” he said. “They don’t teach you this in high school.” During the program, Obeidi also enjoyed the extra-curricular activities, like a trip to the Boston Museum of Science, go-carting, and laser tag. His favorite excursion was to the New England Biolabs, which has been a partner in the program from its inception. “I would love to work in a place like that,” said Obeidi who found the program “educationally enriching. I came here thinking I’d be doing neuroscience, now I’m interested in biotech as well,” he said.

When it comes to studying the nascent fields of biotechnology and nanotechnology, Subhash Minocha says the “students choose a bigger topic, and practice further applications of a technique.” For those interested in environmental and marine science, “Students do small field experiments under the supervision of Prof. Jim Haney,” says Minocha, “and learn to analyze and present their results in the poster session.”

For Newmarket High School student Spencer Littles, studying the use of nanoparticles in cancer treatment was an eye-opening foray into biotechnology for someone who’s interested in a career as a biochemist. “It’s amazing to make something this small – two nanometers – and have so much of an impact; to have something at this scale do something so huge,” said Littles. “I like to not just manipulate things, but to see what I can accomplish by manipulating things.”

Provost John Aber encouraged the students to explore an education in the sciences at UNH. “If you liked the last four weeks,” he said, “just imagine what four years here would be like.” Arjun Bhatnagar, a student from North Andover High School who researched transformations in the immune system using nanotechnology, told the audience that Project SMART “was great learning for the mind and for the future.” And Kim Babbitt, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Wildlife Ecology at COLSA, whipped up the budding scientists’ enthusiasm for their interests, saying, “If you are passionate about what you do, you will have a great life.”

Several of the Project SMART students have returned to UNH as undergraduate students. All of the students begin their studies – wherever they choose to go – with an academic advantage to study the STEM fields and a passion for their interests furthered by their experiences at Project SMART.