Project SEED

High Schoolers Do College-Level Chemistry Research at VCU

Five Richmond Public high school students spent the past summer doing college-level research in the VCU Chemistry Department labs, sponsored by the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED program and the Blue Sky Fund.

Project SEED was established in 1968 by the American Chemical Society to expose economically disadvantaged high school students to chemistry research laboratories, with the goal of increasing underrepresented minority populations pursuing college degrees in STEM-related disciplines. Four students were co-sponsored by Project SEED and the VCU Chemistry Department, and one was funded by a donation from the Richmond-based non-profit, Blue Sky Fund.

The students were all minority women, and they represented George Wythe and Open High Schools. The six-week program began with a two-day boot camp, where students familiarized themselves with lab equipment and underwent a crash-course in the math and chemistry skills they would need to do their research. Based on their research interests, they were paired with faculty members and graduate students, who provided direction and assistance in their summer research projects.

“Our students got a lot out of this,” said Helena Easter, K-12 Science Specialist for Richmond Public Schools. “They learned a lot this summer as far as chemistry, they learned how to collaborate with others, they got to meet a lot of different people from all backgrounds.”

Assistant Professor Mike Hunnicutt, Ph.D., organized the collaboration between Richmond Public Schools, the VCU Chemistry Department and Project SEED. He also incorporated ‘enrichment activities’ into the program, including lectures by VCU faculty on the realities of college life and a field trip to DuPont Protection Solutions, where students experienced the real-world applications of chemistry by creating and testing their own bullet-proof Kevlar vests.

Each student prepared a research report and poster at the end of the program, highlighting the results of their experiments and the real-world applications of their work. Natalia Mangaroo, a sixteen-year-old junior from Open High School, spent her summer working on a project aimed at developing a multiplex detection system of cancer biomarkers called “Aptamer-based Single Molecule Sensing on DNA Platform.” Mangaroo’s research focused mainly on assembling the project’s DNA platforms and characterizing them using gel electrophoresis and fluorescence microscopy.

“It definitely made me want my chemistry career more. It made me realize that this is really what I want to do in my life – I want to work in a lab,” Mangaroo said.

Mangaroo worked in the lab of Assistant Professor Soma Dhakal, Ph.D., who said that while he was initially little nervous to have a high schooler in his laboratory, Mangaroo was brilliant and learned quickly.

“I believe that knowledge is for transformation – not just information,” said Dhakal “Giving early exposure to such young people, I believe we are preparing the next generation of scientists, so I think it’s really important.”

Next year, VCU plans to expand their recruitment efforts for Project SEED by targeting an additional five Richmond Public Schools for potential applicants. Students who participated this year will also have the opportunity to apply again through the SEED Summer II program, where they can either build on their current research projects or begin a new one next summer.

Written by Megan Schiffres