WHEN YOU TELL PEOPLE you work in a cryopreservation lab, it sounds like you’re in a sci-fi movie. But the students who work for Oregon State bioengineering professor Adam Higgins say there’s nothing fictitious about the learning they’ve acquired as part of his broader-impact program.
In the Higgins Laboratory in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering, a team of students and researchers test the safety of methods for freezing human blood for transfusions. By design, the students range in age, experience and identity. Each student is plugged into an aspect of Higgins’ larger research and tasked to mentor the students closest to him or her in age and proficiency. By hosting qualified students at every level of experience, Higgins is able to build a chain of mentorship among his student researchers.
Side-by-Side in the Lab
During summer when the lab is bustling, it’s common to find Higgins working side-by-side with students of all levels — Ph.D. students, master’s students, undergraduate Johnsons Scholars and high schoolers with SESEY (Summer Experiences in Science and Engineering for Youth) or ASE (Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering).
“Some of my students, like the ASEs or undergrads I find in my classes, are hand selected,” says Higgins, “while others such as the Johnsons Scholars I’m paired with through Skip Rochefort, who heads the Johnsons program and Pre-College Programs at OSU.”
Before entering the lab, all students, regardless of age and experience, must go through the same biohazard training. While Higgins and the graduate students set the research trajectory, the undergrads and high schoolers serve most often as assistants and are taught skills such as blood-cell counting, hemolysis testing, and microfluidic-device operating. As they work together to collect and analyze data, Higgins has found that students closest in age and life experience tend to better understand the needs and road bumps associated with being in the less-proficient positions.
“The more senior students gain perspective and skill, but haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be in their mentee’s shoes,” he explains. As he walks around the lab Higgins, too, tries to remain present as an overarching mentor.
Generation to Generation
The chain of mentorship, however, doesn’t end in the lab. Every August, the high school students take their training outdoors to 4-H camps for middle schoolers. There, they practice hands-on activities reflective of basic lab techniques. “For example,” explains former ASE student Cynthia Cruz, “I got to return to the 4-H camp I attended as a kid and conduct experiments with fish eggs to simulate the expansion and shrinkage of blood cells every day for a week. In that way, it was like the chain of mentorship got to continue with me, too.”
It wasn’t until she worked in the Higgins Lab with her mentor Jolynn that Cruz, a well-seasoned participant of OSU’s STEM-based pre-college programs, decided on her major. The meaningful connections with mentors, she says, “taught me the skills I needed for my internship and also helped me look at college programs, scholarships and clubs, and made suggestions based on their experiences.” Now in pre-chemical engineering at OSU, Cruz says she brought with her a support system that has sustained her well beyond her internship’s end date.
Reaching Out to Latinas and Latinos
As for Higgins, bringing students into his lab also presents an opportunity to conduct outreach with historically underrepresented communities of students. Part of his current grant proposal is to include more Latin@ (Latino/Latina) students interested in bioengineering in his lab. Despite entering STEM fields at rates similar to majority white and Asian American students, national surveys show that Latin@ students are retained at much lower rates. Higgins hopes that through active engagement and hands-on learning, he can fuel individual students’ love of bioengineering while giving them context for their academic studies.
“One of the reasons I’m here, as opposed to other types of research institutions, is because of the opportunity OSU presents in mentoring and training young scientists while also doing excellent research,” says Higgins. “Watching the day-to-day of students getting excited about what they’re doing keeps me excited about what I’m doing.”
As Cruz describes it, the authentic lab experience, combined with the energy and excitement presented by her mentor, were what made the biggest difference and left her hungry for more research experiences. “I’m a first-generation student,” she explains, “and these camps gave me the opportunity to learn about and feel more comfortable with working in an academic environment.”
Tips for Involvement
When hosting students with a range of experience, Higgins suggests plugging high school students, whose programs typically span shorter timeframes, directly into current research trajectories. For more information on hosting ASE interns, visit them at http://www.saturdayacademy.org/ase. Or, for those looking to use ASE or similar programs as a broader impact, feel free to contact OSU’s Pre-College Programs at http://oregonstate.edu/precollege/ early in the impact planning process.