Young Scientists Program offers high school students preview of university research

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Alexandre Gill of West Warwick High School preparing for DNA analysis

Alexandre Gill may be a new freshman at West Warwick High School, but he is already a giant leap ahead of some new college students. He and five of his high school-age peers spent the summer performing cutting-edge biological research in the Young Scientists Program through the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS).

“We were doing real science,” Gill explained of their examinations into plant DNA during the five-week program, a rare opportunity for Rhode Island high school students to participate in advanced research. The budding scientists investigated the evolution of plants, led by Shannon Donovan, a science teacher at Scituate High School and CELS alumna, and Dr. Alison Roberts, a professor of biological sciences at CELS.

Using professional DNA sequencing equipment, the Young Scientists searched for a particular gene in a variety of plant samples they collected from URI’s nearby North Woods, to better understand how the gene relates to the evolution of plant cell walls. Roberts will interpret the students’ results and potentially use them to support her own research in a published peer-reviewed article later this year.

“The majority of high schools don’t have equipment like this,” Donovan noted of the program’s access to CELS’ hi-tech facilities. “It’s such a valuable experience.”

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Young Scientists tour URI’s Peckham Farm

In addition to learning college-level genetic analysis techniques, the students toured URI’s scientific facilities, including Peckham Farm, the Innerspace Center, and the Genomics Sequencing Center.

“We wanted the students to see what it’s like to be a part of a university,” Roberts explained. She hopes the experience motivates students while they are still young to pursue a career in science. “If they do well in high school science they will do well in college science,” she added.

The Young Scientist Program was funded by an almost $600,000 National Science Foundation grant awarded to Roberts, which required a “broader impact” component that went beyond research, such as the promotion of teaching, training, or learning. Collaborating with Donovan to fulfill the broader impact was a natural fit according to Roberts, who knew Donovan from her time as a student at CELS. “The idea first started as an afterschool science club and then grew into this!” recounted Donovan.

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A Young Scientist grinds frozen plant material in preparation for a DNA extraction

For student recruitment and transportation, Roberts and Donovan leveraged a partnership with Blackstone River Valley Neighbor Works’ C3 Center, a Woonsocket-based community learning center focused on preventing summer learning loss.

The ability of Roberts and Donovan to connect a variety of resources both on and off campus nearly ensures that future Young Scientist will continue to flourish under their guidance.