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Summer Science

June 4, 2003

Hundreds of children and teenagers swarm the Baylor campus each summer to attend camps ranging from athletics to band. Among them are 10 high school scientists, selected nationally through a rigorous process, who are part of Baylor's Summer Science Research Fellowship Program.

For five weeks beginning in June, they spend most of their time in Baylor laboratories researching everything from the uses of radioactivity to possible cures for diseases. It may not be every teen's idea of a great way to spend a month of summer vacation, but for kids who probably have posters of Einstein hanging in their rooms at home, this is a dream come true.

Baylor's popular science fellowship program, held during the University's first summer session, has filled since it was established in 1992. Participants work side-by-side with a faculty member on active research projects to earn an hour of college credit.

"I can't say it's the only program like this in the country, but it's different from many science camps," says Dr. Benjamin Pierce, professor of biology and director of the program from 1998 until 2002. "This is unique in that students do real research with a professor."

That's exactly what Dr. Richard Swint, the man who first suggested it to Baylor in 1991, envisioned. He had been impressed with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center's summer program for high school seniors. In fact, Dr. Swint, a Baylor graduate and physician in Paris, Texas, met Susan Brown, the woman who would become his wife, at the center's first summer program. She was attending a class in biochemistry, where she met Swint, a graduate student in biochemistry. Years later, they sent each of their six children through the M.D. Anderson summer program.

Dr. Swint believes high school is the time for students to explore their skills and get experience in different vocations. The summer program accomplishes both, he says. "It's hands-on, using what you think you might like to do."

Baylor recruits and selects participants nationally, promoting the program through counselors, Baylor students and parents and on the Internet. That is where Cynthia Wise, a May graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kan., discovered it in spring 2002. "I was looking on the computer and found it. I was kind of late in looking and the deadlines had passed for a lot of other programs," she says. Wise applied by the April 1 deadline and says she was thrilled to be selected.

Students who apply must choose three areas of interest from a list of 13 topics ranging from chemistry to museum studies to nutrition. A selection committee of up to 12 Baylor faculty members and department chairs from science disciplines meets the first week in April to make its selection, Dr. Pierce says.

"We look for students who are academically gifted on the basis of test scores, grades and comments from teachers," he says. High test scores don't automatically vault a student to the top of the list, though. Applicants also must demonstrate natural curiosity. "Sometimes the very best students are not going to be interested in research," he says.

Once selected, participants are matched with a campus faculty mentor. During their stay at Baylor, they live in dorms and experience college life firsthand, although a faculty counselor is available at all times. That taste of college life is appealing to applicants. Although Shyam Patel of Denver says he applied for last summer's program mainly because he wanted to do research, he also was eager to discover what college would be like. He relished having access to the library and lab at Baylor and "having all these resources at the tip of my fingers," he says.

One of Patel's classmates last summer was Wise, who agrees being able to experience college life was important to her. "Living in a dorm for a month really gave me a taste of what independence is like and perhaps what college will be like. It gave all of us a lot of freedom," she says. "I think that being able to function independently and to thrive in that environment is an important lesson that everyone should learn."

Wise, who chose chemistry as her research field, used a fluorescent spectrometer to test anthracene, which is used in measuring radioactive materials. She didn't change her goal of becoming a doctor after the summer, but the program helped narrow her focus. "I got really interested in doing chemistry research, and it gave me a good idea of what research is," she says. "But I'm still thinking about being a doctor. I like the interaction and don't want to spend so much time in a lab."

In contrast, Patel, who studied physics and chemistry, would have enjoyed spending more time in the lab. His research involved testing an ion gun to find what settings would yield the most powerful beams. "I was already pretty interested in engineering and medicine before I went to Baylor," says Patel, whose father is a mechanical engineer. The program, he says, sparked his interest in biomedical engineering research.

That's both the reason for the program and a big draw for Baylor faculty members to be mentors. Dr. Kevin Pinney, associate professor of chemistry and one of the co-founders of Baylor's Center for Drug Discovery, says high school is a good time to attract students to science. "In a universal sense, we all have an obligation as scientists and educators to foster an interest in science and careers in science. We help students see there are tangible issues they can address, and it gives them a perspective of the real world," he says.

Dr. Pinney's research is deeply involved in those tangible issues. He and a team of researchers are working on a drug that looks promising in early testing as a cure for certain kinds of cancers. The compound is called a vascular targeting agent, and it works by cutting off the blood supply to tumors.

Working with faculty researchers like Dr. Pinney is certainly one of the attractions of Baylor's program to high school students, Dr. Pierce says. "Many of our faculty are working on things that have real applications and have good labs to plug students into. Each student essentially becomes a research assistant to the faculty mentor," he says.

Student research last summer ranged from a study of how alcohol affects organisms to causes of aggression to experiments advancing cancer drug studies. One student researching animal enrichment with Heidi Marcum, senior lecturer in environmental studies, spent a week at Padre Island examining sea turtles.

Recruiting top students to Baylor is not the primary goal of the program, but about 30 percent of the high school students who attend do enroll, Dr. Pierce says. "These are top-notch students. They go to places like Princeton, Harvard, Rice, and this gets the Baylor name out there. These students go back and talk to their friends, parents and teachers," he says. "We just feel like we have an obligation to try and promote science in society, and giving young students a chance to do science helps science in general."

The program isn't all work and no play, though, says Dr. Tom Charlton, who directed it from 1993 until 1997 and now is vice provost for administration and professor of history. Extracurricular activities also are planned into the experience. "I've taken them all around Central Texas. I've been the van driver to Fort Worth, Austin, Enchanted Rock," he says.

Marcum took over as field trip planner in recent years, and she takes the students bowling or roller skating, to play miniature golf or to see a movie. On Saturdays, the venue might be a water park, natural cavern, museum or animal sanctuary. The occasional late-night, pick-up basketball game also takes place.

"I adore the kids. They are bright, outgoing -- just the best group," says Marcum, who became program coordinator in 1998. She works with Dr. Lee Nordt, associate dean for sciences and assistant professor of geology, who became director of the program in 2002. In addition to Marcum's animal enrichment study for the program, she also teaches the participants how to present their research on a PowerPoint program. On their last day at Baylor, the students showcase their projects for parents and faculty.

Another aspect of the program is a book club Dr. Pierce initiated, in which he typically chose two or three books for the students to read and discuss at evening seminars. The topics are scientific but not technical, he says. Selections have included The Double Helix by James D. Watson, which deals with his and Francis Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA; Chromosome 6 by Robin Cook, a story about genetic engineering; The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, which includes physics; and Isaac's Storm, by Erik Larson and Isaac Monroe Cline, a story about the Galveston hurricane of 1900 that claimed 10,000 lives.

Wise says she appreciated the additional component the books brought to the program. "The book club introduced me to books that I'm sure I wouldn't have otherwise read," she says. "The Double Helix was interesting because it showed the people behind the clout of Watson and Crick."

Dr. Swint, who suggested the program initially, is pleased with how it has developed. All six Swint children graduated from Baylor, and two of them, sons Galen and Ethan, went through Baylor's summer science program. A daughter, Lorin Swint Matthews, is a Baylor lecturer in physics. All six hold PhDs.

"Most years, they send me an abstract of the students' research," Dr. Swint says. "It is very impressive to read what the students are given for projects. I think it's excellent."

As its new director, Dr. Nordt has no plans to change the format of the science program for teens, but he would like for more young scientists to know about it. "We are always searching for better ways to get the word out to high school students about our program, and ways to involve more Baylor faculty with the students," he says. "We also continue to monitor former students to see where they attend college and to see how successful we were."

Dr. Pinney unhesitatingly gives the teens high marks for their contribution to his lab work. "The students are excellent, technologically very savvy," he says. "Hands-on in the lab, they make good contributions to our research."


For information about how to apply for next year's program, call the College of Arts and Sciences at (254) 710-4288, or e-mail
Bernice_Helpert@baylor.edu

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