June 16, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

Project SEED allows area high school-ers to learn how to make a solution and other basic techniques of science research.

On the third floor of the John “Doc” DeVries Hall of Science, chemistry professor Kumar Sinniah showed the five high school students around him how to dilute a solution. “Don’t use this,” he cautioned, holding up a wash bottle. Use an eye dropper, he said. Sinniah instructed the students to fill a volumetric (flask) halfway up and drip in the rest of the solution for precise results. After demonstrating an alternative technique, how to also make a solution in a microtube, Sinniah turned them loose in the lab.

“When we work with solutions, we’re working with something very concentrated,” Sinniah said, keeping an eye on the scene. “They’re learning how to dilute something precisely.”

The students have come to DeVries Hall from local high schools—City High, The Potter’s House and Ottawa Hills and Hudsonville— to learn how to do science research. They’re part of Project SEED, an eight-week program sponsored by the American Chemical Society and the Integrated Science Research Institute. SEED (not an acronym) offers paid research opportunities to students who wouldn’t typically have those opportunities.

Basic training

“We’re giving them, over the course of one-and-a-half weeks, a course in basic lab techniques so that they can work in our research labs,” said Sinniah. “If someone says, ‘Hey, go make this solution for me,’ they’re comfortable doing that.” He’s also teaching the students to use laboratory glassware, measuring equipment and weighing scales. They’ll also be making “buffer,” a solution that resists changes in Ph from the addition of small amounts of acids and bases.

After they’re trained, each of the students will work with a different professor on a different research project:

Justice Mason, 16, from City High School, will work on splice variants in Zebrafish with chemistry professor Eric Arnoys. Fabiola Enriquez, 17, also from City, will work on the impact of bacterial infections on fetal membranes with biology professor Amy Wilstermann. Ashlee Alexander, 17, from Ottawa Hills High School, will work on noncovalent interactions with chem professor Chad Tatko. Matt Igo, 17, from Hudsonville High School, will research tyrosine and systine crosslinks with chem and biochem professor David Benson. And 18-year-old Niecia Flikweert, a recent graduate of the Potter’s House who will attend Calvin this fall, is researching DNA quadriplexes with Sinniah.

Early exposure

The program is intended to foster a love of research in students before they attend college, said chemistry professor and SEED administrator Mark Muyskens: “It gets a whole new group of students involved with research at Calvin. We hope the experience motivates these young people to consider a career in science.”

Flikweert is enjoying her second year in Project SEED. “It’s really fun working in his lab. He really cares about every student’s future,” she said. Last year, Flikweert worked on nanotechnology with professor Douglas Vander Griend, but switched from inorganic to organic chemistry this year.  “It’s a better fit for me,” she said. “I want to go into medical research.”

Alexander, another SEED returnee, remembers her trepidation about starting the program: “I was actually quite scared because I didn’t know about analytical balances or peptides or what an amino acid was—and that was kind of what my lab was working on,” she confessed. “I felt like, ‘How am I going to go in there, a high school junior, and work with college professors and students who have years and years of chemistry when I have only one class?’” Her first stint in the program did a lot to build her confidence, Alexander said: “I was actually helping my lab make peptides!” Now she hopes to study chemistry in college and work one day as an anesthesiologist.  

In his first week of SEED, Igo also admitted to jitters. “It was my first fulltime job,” he said. That was what I was scared of.” Sinniah’s preparation is a big help, he said. And he likes the lab. “It’s almost like summer school, but you get paid,” he said.

Junior biology and biochem major Ryan Martinie, who researches with Igo in Benson’s lab, is enjoying working with the SEED students. “It’s just neat to see people getting involved in science research that early on,” he said.

Justice Mason creates his solution.

SEED returnees Niecia Flikweert and Ashlee Alexander

Chemistry professor Kumar Sinniah

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