Students pursue research opportunities at local universities

by Journalism I student Becina Ganther

Perched at the table in the middle of The Ohio State University’s Sadee Lab, long after most college students have returned to their dorms, sits UAHS senior Ben Kompa. His nimble fingers reach for lab materials and jot down notes in a binder, while his eyes stay trained to the PCR tubes in front of him. Each tube contains one of the 32 brain samples he is testing, along with various enzymes and chemicals. Once the experiment is complete, Kompa will have made a billion copies of each brain sample, which he will use for further analysis.

The school bell rings at 3:05, signalling the end of the scholastic day for most students. But for student researchers such as Kompa, there are still hours more of academic pursuit.

Trading leisure time for lab coats, and school clubs for stethoscopes, students turn prodigious research aspirations into their futures.

According to science teacher Wendy Pinta, the first step to conducting research at colleges is finding a topic the student is interested in studying.

“Students find mentors by first deciding what it is that they want to investigate,” Pinta said. “Research ranges from physics and engineering projects to psychology, bio-fuels and environmental, to medicine and health.”

Student research interests are also influenced by popular research topics at the university level.

“I will say that the one area that I have seen expanded upon in the last few years is environment, especially biofuel research and carbon-capture research,” Pinta said. “The explosion of projects in this area at the local and national levels mirrors the expansion of these fields at the university level.”

One student who has been influenced by the explosion of environmental projects is junior Matthew Belz. He is currently studying lithium ion and how to create better metal air batteries, which will enable solar and wind power to become a better replacement for oil.

Other students, such as Kompa, are working to make advancements in medicine.

“Currently [my research] has more theoretical foundations. It allows other scientists to use brand new gene sequencing technology,” Kompa said.

Junior Taruni Kumar is also conducting research in the field of medicine.

“I did research last year on bacteria and inflammation,” Kumar said. “It’s cancer related.”

The second step in conducting research, Pinta explained, is coordinating with a college, hospital, or other facility that will let high school students work in their labs.

“Students complete a literature review of relevant research in their topic or field,” Pinta said. “ Afterwards, they begin to network for mentors. These sometimes come from a notable researcher whose studies they have read during their literature review, or from a search of professors, using university websites, in their field,” Pinta said.

Belz has found the online approach useful in locating mentors.

“I work with Dr. Yiying Wu,” Belz said. “I found him through the Department of Chemistry’s website and found the professors that were available for research.”

Kompa found a professor at Ohio Dominican University because his mother worked there.

“My mom was a professor there, and to get started at science research, you need to know someone [at the facility] so that was the first place I could get a job.”

After finding a professor, science teacher Laura Brennan said students “write an email to that professor, introduce themselves, and ask to have a meeting. And they’ll go and meet the person, talk about what they’re interested in. And hopefully the mentor will let them work at their lab.”

Brennan said there are numerous benefits to conducting research at a professional lab, as opposed to a high school classroom.

“I think it’s the level of the research,” she explained. “A lot of these are cutting edge, very high level research at the university setting.”

Such cutting edge research would need equipment and tools that only a university could provide, Pinta said.

“Students who work in a private or university laboratory have access to specialized and more sophisticated equipment than we can provide at school,” she said.

For instance, Kompa’s latest experiment involving DNA samples required materials the school would not have been able to provide.

Additionally, professors supervise students working in the lab.

“When a student works in the lab, the professor, or someone designated to the student, supervises the students work,” Pinta said. “This ensures that standard protocols are followed and that the student does not inadvertently expose themselves to dangerous or hazardous chemicals or devices.”

Brennan agreed that keeping students safe in a college laboratory was a top priority.

“Quite often,[students] have to go through safety training,” she said.

After a year of researching in a lab with their professors, some student researchers receive recognition for their work. Brennan said she has had students who go to international science fairs from doing their research work.

“Two students right now…are going to be second authors on research papers. That’s a very big thing in the world of research, to have a published research paper,” Brennan said.

Kompa has received awards, prize money, and professional fame through his research.

“I was the McGraw Hill Young Scientist at the regional state fair,” he said. “I won $250 and am going to be featured in a short documentary by Life Technologies, a gene sequencing company, about [my] research.”

Kumar said she presented her medicinal research at a science fair and received a state award and dentistry award.

Although the rigorous lab work keeps him busy, Belz said he enjoys his research and doesn’t mind the lack of free time.

“Balancing school and research can be difficult at times, but the research is fun so I don’t find it much of a problem,” Belz said.

In fact, the main reason why many students decide to begin research is that they have a strong interest in the subject.

“Understanding how the body works has always been really cool to me, so to have a chance to research how parts of the body work that people haven’t discovered yet was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Kompa said.

Like Kompa, Kumar also enjoyed studying medicine and was looking to expand his involvement in the field.

“I have an interest in medicine, so I decided this was a good way to get into it early on,” Kumar explained.

Belz said he began his research because he had been wanting to find answers to his engineering questions, and he felt OSU allowed him to pursue that interest.

Student researchers often have a strong scientific career ahead of them.

“Many of them continue with their work when they’re in college, and will continue to be paid in a lab and that becomes their job,” Brennan said. “So they’re full time students and work in a lab part time to earn some money.”

Kompa, Belz, and Kumar each hope to continue their current research in their future careers.

“Currently, I’m leaning toward being a medical researcher and getting a PhD and maybe a Doctor of Medicine degree and focus on researching new medical care,” Kompa said. “I want to get a college degree, and by the end of undergrad have three, four, six or more papers published in a scientific journal.”

Likewise, Kumar wants to be a doctor and continue her dentistry research.

Belz is looking to major in Chemical/Materials science engineering at a research focused school, such as Carnegie Mellon or Princeton.

“I hope to find some answers to the unknowns of metal air batteries,” he said. “If we can get better batteries, solar and wind power will become possible for replacement of oil.”

Being a student researcher can be a daunting task, and conducting experiments is demanding of the researcher’s time and energy; however, Belz said the possibility of recognition and future success, along with the promise of expanding present knowledge, make it a worthwhile experience.

Belz described student research best: “Working in a college lab,” he said, “is always a cool experience.”