CSU, Chico News

Summer Research Institute Welcomes High School Students for First Time

Date: 07-25-2012

Kathleen McPartland
Public Affairs
Erik Wasinger
Department of Chemistry

The Chemistry Summer Research Institute at California State University, Chico, which successfully teams undergraduate chemistry students with professors in original research projects, is in its 12th year, though it has only officially been called CSRI since 2007. This year, for the first time, four local high school students are an integral part of CSRI.

High school students Azure Grant, Priya Chattopadhyay, Liz O’Neill and Eoin Mackall joined five faculty members and eight CSU, Chico undergraduates on research teams to undertake leading-edge research in chemistry. Each Friday during the 10-week institute, a professor or a student presents either original research or topics from current chemical literature.

Although the idea to have high school students be a part of CSRI has been around for several years, the idea came to fruition this year when Dr. Erik Wasinger remembered an experience he had as a high school student more than 20 years ago. Jenelle Ball, a chemistry teacher at Chico High School, created research opportunities for a few students with CSU, Chico chemistry professors. Wasinger valued that experience and found it to be formative in his decision about chemistry as a future career.

“This past year, I had Azure Grant, an exceptional student from Chico High School, in my general chemistry course, and it struck me that I we could provide the same kind of opportunity for her that was given to me,” said Wasinger.

Members of the Chemistry department believe that laboratory research experience is critical to the overall education of a scientist, said Wasinger, and so they agreed to seek private donations to provide stipends for high school students. While all of the students receive summer stipends, the faculty members volunteer their own time to work with all of the CSRI students.

“The experience has been very positive,” said Wasinger. “High school students don’t come in with the same background as our undergraduates do, but when they are done they’ve learned a lot that simply can’t be taught in a classroom, and they’ve been exposed to and learned to use instrumentation that few high school students would even see.”

Through CSRI the students also get a taste of working with outside collaborators. One CSRI group led by Dr. Dave Ball has partnered with Professor Ron Tjeerdema from the Department of Environmental Toxicology at UC Davis and Professor Randy Senock from the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, CSU, Chico. Dr. Lisa Ott’s group has partnered with the CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology, and Dr. Erik Wasinger’s group has been performing research in conjunction with British Petroleum.

The high school students have been very productive in the summer institute. Two high school students have made new compounds that are being tested for antimicrobial, antifungal and possible anticancer reactivity; one has studied the preparation, purification, and analysis of biodiesel; and one is extracting and analyzing natural oils from Sandalwood. Several of the four high school students have indicated interest in continuing research after their five-week CSRI appointments are over, even into the upcoming academic year.

Over the years of the institute, the student co-workers have presented their summer research at regional and national American Chemistry Society meetings. Most of them have gone on to complete Ph.D. programs in chemistry or post-graduate professional schools. One of those graduates is Jen Howell, Ph.D., Colorado State University, who returned to Chico to deliver one of the Friday seminars this summer.

“We all look forward to continuing to include high school students in the institute,” said Wasinger. “Our hope is that as more people learn about how the CSRI helps create future scientists, that they will be inspired to help.”

CSRI will hold a reception on Thursday, Aug. 2, 4-5:30 p.m. in the Physical Sciences Building courtyard where CSRI students and collaborators will be honored. Community members and media who might be interested in the work of the institute are invited to attend.

For more information about the institute or the reception, contact Shannon Sandoval at 898-5259.