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Teens Experience Hands-on Science at USU's Biotechnology Summer Academy

Thursday, Jul. 19, 2012

high school students at USU in Joan Hevel's lab

In the lab of Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry faculty member Joan Hevel, graduate student Betsy Caceres, center, guides Biotech Summer Academy participants Srisurya Sidharthan, left, and Zachary Ewell in protein purification techniques.

high school students at USU in Giovanni Rompato's lab

In USU scientist Giovanni Rompato's lab, Advanced Biotechnology Summer Academy participants, from left, Isabella Muffoletto, Satin Tashnizi and Kalyani Kannan extract DNA from microorganisms found in Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

At Utah State University’s 12th annual Biotechnology Summer Academy for high school students, teens took a break from typical school vacation pursuits to investigate the effects of toxins from poisonous tree frogs and venomous sea snails on human muscle cells, study a unique clonal seed process that could help feed the world’s hungry and learn how to use a nanodrop spectrophotometer.

“It’s been a wonderful experience getting to work in the lab,” said Srisurya Sidharthan, a student at Utah’s InTech Collegiate High School, who plans to study chemistry in college and apply to medical school. “We’re investigating a protein that could help us better understand the causes of cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

Sidharthan was among 22 teens from Utah, California and Indiana who participated in the 2012 program held July 9-13 on USU’s Logan campus. Coordinated by USU’s Center for Integrated BioSystems, the academy exposes teens to university-level research and college life.

“I’m learning about computational chemistry and nanotechnology,” said Cody Lucas, a student at Salt Lake City’s Academy for Math, Engineering and Science, who spent the week in chemistry professor Tapas Kar’s lab. “It’s been fun staying in the dorms and getting to know all the summer academy participants. They’re all nerds like me.”

CIB education coordinator Afifa Sabir initiated the academy in 2001 and has led the summer program, which has welcomed more than 400 participants, every year since.

“Each year, I’m more and more motivated by the students who take part in the academy,” Sabir said. “They’re excited to learn and often ask to return the following year.”

In fact, Sabir started an advanced summer academy several years ago at the suggestion of academy participants. The advanced program accommodates teens returning to the academy for a second year of biotechnology learning.

“Once you get teens to campus and give them an opportunity to experience life science research, they get excited about learning and pursuing college study,” she says. “Along with getting young people interested in science, the academy has been a valuable recruitment tool for USU.”

At the conclusion of each year’s academy, participants present their research projects to family, peers and faculty members. Faculty judges select the top three presentations.

“This is an important part of the academy — as future scientists, the students practice articulating what they’ve learned to an audience,” Sabir says. “Sometimes teens are quite nervous about this aspect of the week, but I reassure them that they know more about their subject than most anyone in the room. As my doctoral advisor told me years ago, ‘It’s a piece of cake.’”

Award recipients for Biotech Academy presentations were:

First Place: Nicole Kearl (Box Elder High School, Brigham City, Utah) and Dylan Wootton (Logan High School, Logan, Utah) for “Bovine Cloning: Immune Responses and Gene Expression at the Maternal-Fetal Interface.” Faculty mentor Chris Davies, Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences.  

Second Place: Annika Hansen (Carbon High School, Price, Utah) and Julie Zimmer (Oakmont High School, Roseville, Calif.) for “A Novel Fungal Flavin-Dependent Halogenase for Natural Product Biosynthesis.” Faculty mentor: Jixun Zhan, Department of Biological Engineering.

Third Place: Zachary Ewell (Box Elder High School, Brigham City, Utah) and Srisurya Sidharthan (InTech Collegiate High School, North Logan, Utah) for “Air2 Protein Purification.” Faculty mentor: Joanie Hevel, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Related links:

High School Students Test Science Skills during USU Program,” Standard-Examiner

USU Center for Integrated BioSystems

Contact: Afifa Sabir, 435-797-2753,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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