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Students from Mohonasen Middle School and P-TECH Visit RPI Labs

December 12, 2018
by Brigitte Arduini


Students from Draper Middle School in Mohonasen and the Capital Region P-TECH program recently visited Rensselaer to gain firsthand insights into cell biology and bioengineering research. Approximately forty students were hosted by researchers Alexis Ziemba and Anthony D’Amato, observing demonstrations such as fabrication of bio-compatible fibers for spinal cord injury repair and confocal microscopy. They also engaged in a design challenge to apply biomedical engineering principles used in creating protective gear for athletes and toured the extensive research facilities in the

Astrocytes (green) and fibroblasts (red) in cell culture. Microscopy by Jenna Niles and Sarah Conway.

Astrocytes (green) and fibroblasts (red) in cell culture. Microscopy by Jenna Niles and Sarah Conway.

Center for Biotechnology & Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS). The students’ teachers, Jenna Niles and Sarah Conway, are veteran educators eager to enhance their pupils’ exposure to cutting edge science and engineering. Niles says the experience was inspiring for her science club, “They got to tour the CBIS facilities and Stem Cell Core, participate in STEM-themed team building activities, learn about bioengineering from experts in the field, use state-of-the-art imaging technology, and practice real-life aseptic lab techniques. Our students were absolutely blown away by the opportunities available to them at RPI, and had an absolute blast spending their day learning something they see as both interesting and useful.”

Ziemba and D’Amato had connected Niles and Conway over the summer as part of Rensselaer’s Pre-College Teachers Training Program in Stem Cell Biology & Bioengineering. Niles and Conway spent six weeks at Rensselaer during July and August, themselves participating in team wet-lab activities, lectures and discussion groups. Teachers are also matched in pairs with research mentors. The experience is robust by design, according to program co-director Deanna Thompson, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, “The teachers have time to forge relationships between one another, learn about advances in the field,  and develop curriculum to educate students on the fast moving field of stem cell biology and bioengineering. Working with our faculty, graduate and post-doctoral students, the teachers have an opportunity to learn more about research and opportunities for students who are interested in careers in science.”

Together, Ziemba, D’Amato, Niles and Conway developed new activities for classroom learning and coordinated the day-long visit to campus. Graduate students  Jessica Funnell, Heidi Niskanen, Meghan Pendyala, and Devan Puhl, lab technician Bailey Balouch, middle school science teacher Cassie Jansch and Nanoscale Characterization Core Director Deniz Rende gave introductions to the field of Biomedical Engineering, demonstrated methods they use in their research projects, assisted in the design challenge, and took students on tours of CBIS research labs, answering questions about their work and training. A broad range of technologies used in bioengineering research were discussed by Director of Research Cores Marimar Lopez, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Core Director Scott McCallum and Analytical Biochemistry Core Director Joel Morgan. Ziemba relates, “[Jenna and Sarah] were invested in learning as much as possible in our lab to be able to bring back real world lab activities to their students. Based on their excitement, we wanted to give their students an opportunity to visit our lab and use more exquisite technology than what’s available in middle and high schools. It was great interacting with the students as they asked many questions at each lab station ranging from microscopy to material fabrication. We felt a lasting impact as we communicated the importance of research and potentially inspired future STEM leaders.”

Graduate student Devan Puhl demonstrates electrospinning of biocompatible fibers.

Graduate student Devan Puhl demonstrates electrospinning of bio-compatible fibers for spinal cord injury research.

In addition to providing direct involvement in stem cell and bioengineering research, the teachers training program seeks to develop ongoing partnerships between pre-college educators in New York State and the research community at Rensselaer. To Thompson, this day of student science is a key outcome. “We are lucky to have some amazing students who participated in the program this summer working with the teachers, Ms. Niles and Ms. Conway.  Ms. Ziemba, a PhD student and Dr. D’Amato, who recently completing his PhD from Professor Ryan Gilbert’s laboratory in Biomedical Engineering, coordinated the field trip to engage students from Mohonasen to experience first hand research. It was great to see the students engaged in the STEM activities within CBIS.”

For their part, the teachers are enthusiastic about continuing interactions. Conway notes, “The trip was so successful that we’re already planning one for the spring, and we hope to sustain this relationship and the opportunities it offers for years to come.”