Science & Technology

Teens Experience Hands-on Research at USU's Summer Biotech Academy

While Wesley Cook’s friends were likely hitting the water slides at Lagoon-a-Beach or chilling in a movie theater catching the latest adventure flicks, the Kaysville, Utah, teen, decked out in a white lab coat and safety goggles at Utah State University’s Center for Integrated BioSystems, was examining tiny vials of “extremely tough” bacteria.

“We’re investigating how bacteria from the Great Salt Lake acclimate to salt stress,” said the aspiring scientist, who attends Davis High School. “The high salt content of the lake makes oxygen limited, which means the bacteria have to change the way they get their energy.”

Cook was among 31 students from Utah and six other states participating in USU’s 14th annual Biotechnology Summer Academy, held July 7-11 on the university’s Logan campus. Coordinated by the Center for Integrated BioSystems, the week-long academy exposes teens to university-level research and college life.

“Our goal is to pair students with faculty mentors so they get a chance to see what’s it’s actually like to work in a lab,” said Aaron Thomas, CIB research assistant professor, who directs the program. “The hands-on experience helps students learn about options for college study and helps them make decisions about the kinds of majors to pursue.”

This was Cook’s second year at the academy, where participants stay in dorms, eat in campus facilities, receive lab safety training and tour USU’s labs. But the young scientists spent the bulk of their time working side-by-side with faculty mentors in research pursuits ranging from understanding the causes of cardiovascular disease to studying a unique clonal seed process that could help feed the world’s hungry.

“I believe some of the near future’s most significant scientific advances will be in biotechnology,” Cook said. “I’m putting myself right in the middle of it.”

Initiated in 2001, the academy has welcomed nearly 500 students since its inception.

“We’ve discovered that once you get teens to campus and give them an opportunity to experience research and college life, they get very excited about college study,” Thomas said.

At the academy’s July 11 conclusion, each student presented his or her research to fellow participants, family and friends.

“Part of being a scientist is presenting your research, so we include this as part of the academy experience,” Thomas said. “Teens are a little nervous about this, but we provide training and a non-threatening venue.”

The final presentations are a highlight of the week for the students, he said. “They gain a lot of confidence from talking about their work.”

Cook offered his own advice to students interested in scientific pursuits.

“You really need to be able to do basic math,” he said. “There’s lots of conversion in scientific research. Knowing your math is good.”

Award recipients, with high school and hometown indicated, for Biotech Academy presentations were:

First Place: Katie Gibson (Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy, Glendale, Ariz.) and Hannah Wight (Marsh Valley High School, Arimo, Idaho) for “H3K9 ME in Porcine Trophoblast Grown in Vitro.” Faculty mentor Clay Isom, Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences. 

Second Place: Jacob Poyner (Sky View High School, Smithfield, Utah) for “Does the Environment Impact Fetal Gene Activity?” Faculty mentor: Abby Benninghoff, Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences.

Third Place: Trevor DeMille (Academy for Math, Engineering and Science, Salt Lake City) and Ethan Laudie (Liberty High School, Liberty, Mo.) for “Transgenic? No Kid-ing!” Faculty mentor: Irina Polejaeva, Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences.

Related Link:

USU Center for Integrated BioSystems

Contact: Aaron Thomas, 435-797-3504,

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

Summer Biotech Academy scientist and students

USU Center for Integrated BioSystems scientist Mirella Meyer, center, guides Summer Biotech Academy participants Merab McFarland (Boston's Dana Hall School), left, and Ethan Smith (Logan High School, Utah), right, in lab procedures.

Biotech Academy participants and faculty member in lab

Biotech Academy participants Crystal Vejar (InTech Collegiate High School, Utah), center, and Shania Bitsoie (San Juan High School, Utah), right, await test results as they study anemia with Chemistry and Biochemistry faculty mentor Edwin Antony.


Research 545stories Hands-on Learning 133stories

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