In the Lab: UA Students Help Inspire Next Wave of Scientists

In the Lab: UA Students Help Inspire Next Wave of Scientists

High schoolers work side by side with UA students at Scientist for a Day

By David Miller

UA doctoral student Akshay Narkhede makes hydrogels for high-school students visiting Dr. Shreyas Rao’s lab during Scientist for a Day.

Akshay Narkhede routinely prepares polymeric biomaterials during lab work in the Science and Engineering Complex at The University of Alabama.

Narkhede, a doctoral student in chemical and biological engineering, uses these hydrogels to mimic the mechanical aspects of human tissue to study how cancer cells behave in human or clinical settings. In Dr. Shreyas Rao’s lab in the SEC, Narkhede uses the hydrogels to investigate how breast cancer cells will behave in distant organ tissues – for instance, brain, lungs, bones or liver – to study the spread of breast cancer to these organs.

Narkhede has other research foci in Rao’s lab, but on this day, he’s focused on duplicating hydrogels to demonstrate to several young, curious shadows: high school seniors in a daylong immersion of hands-on lab experiments at UA.

“As a high school student, you have four walls and a classroom,” Narkhede said. “But when you get to come in the lab and actually see that happening, that’s the most aha! moment for them. They get to experience what they’ve been learning theoretically, and now being translated into an actual practice.”

Nine students from five high schools in the Tuscaloosa area participated in Scientist for a Day, an Alabama Science in Motion program designed to inspire upperclassmen to major in a STEM field. In the last five years, 34 high school students have participated in the program.

This year, in addition to Rao’s lab, students conducted experiments in a biology lab in Mary Harmon Bryant Hall and the Caldwell Lab, better known as the “Worm Shack,” in the SEC. There, undergraduate lab assistants demonstrated their many uses of microscopic nematodes (roundworms) to study neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and Alzeheimer’s disease.

“In here, we use these scopes to transfer worms back and forth for different kinds of experiments, and that’s what [the high school students] were doing,” said Nathan Moniz, third-year biology major.

Nathan Moniz (left), an undergraduate biology major, details the use of nematodes to study diseases as Northside High School senior John Ellis Kuykendall prepares to view roundworms under a microscope.

Moniz has been working in the Caldwells’ lab since spring semester of his freshman year. He said the experiences gained in the lab have been “very enriching,” as he’d never set foot in a research lab prior to enrolling at UA. Moniz said the high schoolers participating in Scientist for a Day have a unique opportunity he wasn’t afforded.

“There’s only one college in my hometown, and it’s a liberal arts school,” he said. “I only ever thought I was interested in research by things I saw in movies.”

Moniz said he’s fortunate to get research lab experience as an undergraduate, an opportunity that, while not rare, is more common for graduate students. Northside High School senior and UA Early College student John Ellis Kuykendall was surprised to see undergraduates leading demonstrations at Scientist for a Day.

“I knew I needed to do research because I want to go to medical school, but I didn’t really know what that meant,” Kuykendall said. “I thought undergraduates would just clean dishes in the labs. But [at UA], the undergrads actually get to do stuff.”

Narkhede said he mostly started to develop a broader picture of experimentation once he reached his senior year of undergrad, so he relished the chance to “impart my knowledge and these experiments,” at Scientist for a Day.

The event is an extension of ASIM’s mission to provide high-tech lab experiences for students and professional development for teachers. ASIM has 33 branches across the state, including an office at the UA-UWA In-Service Center at UA.

In addition to Rao, participating UA faculty included Drs. Guy Caldwell and Kim Caldwell, Jack Dunkle, Ryan Earley, Kevin Kocot and Ryan Summer.