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Summer Science: Teens Enjoy Hands-on Learning at USU's Biotech Academy

Thursday, Jul. 18, 2013

high school students and USU faculty member in lab

Biological Engineering faculty member Dave Britt, center, guides Biotech Summer Academy participants Miles Robertson of Salem, Ore., left, and Shania Bitsoie of Blanding, Utah, in synthesis of fluorescent nanoparticles.

high school students and USU faculty member in Biotechnology Summer Academy lab

USU biology professor Anne Anderson, left, shows comparison lab samples to Biotechnology Summer Academy participants Andrew Curtin of Highland, Utah; Anna Bryner of Price, Utah and Ashley Shaw of Salt Lake City.

Science isn’t just some old ideas written down in a textbook. That’s one of the messages teens attending Utah State University’s 13th annual Biotechnology Summer Academy for high school students contemplated this summer while donning lab coats, gloves and safety goggles and delving into hands-on research.

“This is where it all starts,” said USU biology professor Anne Anderson, as she guided high schoolers Anna Bryner, Andrew Curtin and Ashley Shaw in setting up an experiment. “Not everything is written down. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The three young researchers were among 19 teens from Utah, Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin who participated in the 2013 program held July 8-12 on USU’s Logan campus. Coordinated by USU’s Center for Integrated BioSystems, the academy exposes teens to university-level research and college life.

“We’re looking at bacterial-fungal interactions,” said Shaw, who begins her senior year this fall at Salt Lake City’s Academy for Math, Engineering and Science. “And we’ve each come up with a different hypothesis.”

Several buildings away, teens Shania Bitsoie and Miles Robertson, working in the lab of biological engineering faculty member David Britt, dimmed the lights and watched as fluorescent nanoparticles gave off a bright green glow.

“It’s been so much fun,” said Robertson, who attends Salem, Oregon’s Sprague High School. “Working in the lab has really expanded my mind on applications of the stuff I’ve been learning in my high school classes.”

And that’s exactly the reaction academy leaders, including coordinator Afifa Sabir, hoped for.

“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,” says Sabir, who 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,” she 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.

At the conclusion of each year’s academy, participants, who reside in campus dorms during the week-long camp, 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, with high school and hometown indicated, for Biotech Academy presentations were:

First Place: Shania Bitsoie (San Juan High School, Blanding, Utah) and Miles Robertson (Sprague High School, Salem, Ore.) for “Synthesis of Fluorescent Nanoparticles.” Faculty mentor David Britt, Department of Biological Engineering. 

Second Place: Rachel Bybee (Maple Mountain High School, Spanish Fork, Utah), Ryanne Crosby (Kanab High School, Kanab, Utah), Dylan Petersen (Mountain Crest High School, Providence, Utah) and Jessica Taylor (Northwest Career and Technology Academy, Las Vegas, Nev.) for “Investigating Indigoidine Heterologous Expression of IndC in e. coli.” Faculty mentor: Jixun Zhan, Department of Biological Engineering.

Third Place: Shania Collins (Academy for Math, Engineering and Science, Magna, Utah) and Inger Toraasen (Slinger High School, Slinger, Wis.) for “Horse Reproduction and Reducing the Effects of Estrogen on Mares in Heat.” Faculty mentor: Dirk Vanderwall, Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences.

Related links:

USU Center for Integrated BioSystems

Contact: Afifa Sabir, 435-797-2753,

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

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