Expanding Options - Project ENGAGES Student Finds New Posse to Ride With
The second in a series of stories about Project ENGAGES, which recently began its second year at the Petit Institute.
In his old job, Solomon McBride rarely did anything more challenging than stick groceries in a bag. In his current job, he’s performing experiments in a well-equipped lab, researching the negative effects antiretroviral drugs can have on the cardiovascular systems of HIV patients.
So yeah, the 18-year-old McBride likes his current job way more than his last job. Except, it’s not exactly a job. It’s more like an educational opportunity. And soon, he’ll have to give it up, but that’s good thing, because better things await McBride, a second-year Project ENGAGES student who will start attending Brandeis University near Boston, this fall on a Posse Scholarship.
If you’ve spent any time at the Parker H. Petit Institute for Biotechnology and Bioscience, chances are good that you’ve seen McBride or his fellow students in Project ENGAGES, a high school education program created through the NSF Science and Technology Center on the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS, a research center that is supported and resides in the Petit Institute).
Developed last year at the Georgia Institute of Technology in partnership with Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy and B.E.S.T Academy, two minority-serving public high schools in the City of Atlanta, the program aims to serve “a community of children who did not see themselves as belonging or fitting in with a place like Georgia Tech,” according to Lakeita Servance, who oversees Project ENGAGES as the EBICS’ (and Petit Institute’s) education outreach manager. “We’re also introducing students to a broader field of science. Studying biology doesn’t mean that you can only be a doctor, so this program demonstrates that you can do a number of different things, that you have choices and options.”
And McBride, who recently graduated from the B.E.S.T. Academy, likes his expanded options. He’d been thinking along the lines of careers in film, or economics, but after more than a year studying and working in Manu Platt’s lab he says, “science is wide open. I always liked science, but doubted myself, so I was hesitant. But now I feel like research is definitely something I want to do, and the experience here has given me a foundation for the college experience. I understand the mindset it takes now.”
During the school year, students involved in Project ENGAGES who are on the biotechnology track (like McBride) commit to working 12 to 15 hours a week in a Georgia Tech bio lab (there is also now an engineering track, developed under the leadership of the Georgia Tech Research Institute). During the summer, it goes up to 40 hours a week. Students are paid $9 an hour for their time – time they otherwise would have spent bagging groceries or flipping burgers, probably. So there is a sense not only of working for a grade, but actually producing results in the lab, helping to make hands on discoveries. That’s what hooked McBride, who also appreciates the commitment of his mentors and lab partners (undergrads, PhD students, post-docs, etc.).
“We get a wage, so it’s a job that we take seriously,” McBride says. “I’m sure it’s not easy to have a bunch of high school students in your labs, but they’ve given us responsibilities, they treat us like adults. There’s a sense of importance to what we’re doing, and you have to get it right. You learn it. And you get the hands on experience, working with the equipment, doing the experiments. You see the cause and effect. You make the connections. It all comes together.”
McBride comes from a family that places a high value on a college education, so his academic pursuits are grounded, to some degree, close to the heart. He has three older sisters who have set an inspirational pace. One graduated from Howard University, another from Swarthmore, and another is going to art school in Chicago. So, McBride is carrying on a bit of the family tradition, and when he gets to Boston, he’ll be a much more confident version of himself. Part of that is the Project ENGAGES experience, but the deeper source comes from his time at the B.E.S.T. Academy.
“I started there in the sixth grade, the first class at the school,” he says. “If you asked me then, I’d have said, ‘get me out of here right now!’ But looking back, it was a great experience, partly due to the challenges a new school faces. You’re a startup, learning how to stand on your feet, and you face many problems, you know, like growing pains. You go through that and you get a sense of resilience that you’re going to need throughout life.”
He showed plenty of resilience through an extensive Posse Scholar recruitment process – about 1,200 students in the Atlanta region applied for the 61 scholarships that were ultimately awarded. The scholarships come from the 25-year-old Posse Foundation, a U.S. non-profit organization that identifies, recruits and trains students with academic and leadership potential.
The scholars are then organized in supportive, often multicultural teams (or, “posses” of 10 students) comprised of students from the same city, and Posse Foundation partner colleges and universities award four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships. Then, for eight months before beginning their college careers, the Posse Scholars attend weekly pre-collegiate training meetings, getting to know the members of their posse, and generally preparing for the academic, social and personal challenges ahead.
Getting through the door involved three rounds of interviews. Before the first round, McBride asked Bob Nerem, founding director of the Petit Institute who co-founded Project ENGAGES with assistant professor Manu Platt last year, to write a letter of recommendation – students are asked to supply this, and typically it comes from one of their high school teachers. The first question McBride got from the first interviewer was, How in the world did get a letter from a Georgia Tech professor? The answer is, Project ENGAGES.
McBride has met with his posse weekly since finding out he won the scholarship in December. They’re all Atlanta kids and all are African-American, which is a first for Posse, which serves (and has offices in) nine U.S. cities, and strives for a diverse collection of scholars. Project ENGAGES also puts a premium on diversity, integrating its group of entirely African-American high school students with the wide-ranging cultural melting pot that is the Petit Institute. So, McBride was a little surprised when he first met his monochromatic posse.
“It was weird at first, but then you get to know your posse and you realize that diversity doesn’t just mean skin color,” McBride ways. “My posse is made up of people from entirely different backgrounds, people with completely different life experiences, whether from an economic or family standpoint or otherwise.”
He expects the lessons of integrative communities to continue at Brandeis, and he is open minded about the educational possibilities, which he believes, like science, are wide open. McBride isn’t sure yet what he’ll major in, but he’s certain it will be related to scientific research. In the short term, however, he knows exactly what he wants to be: the next John Ewing.
Ewing, an undergrad at Vanderbilt University, where he also stars on the cross-country team, has been working in Nerem’s lab the past four summers. So, Ewing’s summertime role has evolved with the infusion of high school students in Petit Institute labs. There were 10 students in the first Project ENGAGES biotech class last year, all of whom returned to 40-hour status this summer, plus 10 new students on the biotech track, who began the summer session with a boot camp, and have only recently moved into labs.
“Boot camp is a lot to get through, but once they get in the lab, they start putting it all together, and that’s my favorite part,” says Ewing, a rising senior at Vanderbilt who grew up in Atlanta and plans to go to medical school. “You see how they react once they are paired with their mentors, you see the change between that first day, when research mentors present their projects, to the last day, when the high school students present their projects. They’ve gone from not really knowing what’s going on to being able to present and own a piece of a research project. That’s a really cool transformation.”
It’s a transformation he’s had a guiding hand in. Ewing helps organize the students, gives talks on cell biology, helps the kids with their research presentations – an all-around utility player with a friendly ear for the high school kids who are really just a few years younger than he is. And as an Atlanta guy who comes home every year and brings something back to the Georgia Tech community, he’s set an example for McBride, who envisions coming back to the Petit Institute to fill a similar kind of mentor’s role.
“John has had a huge impact on the program, and on me,” says McBride. “Not just for the four weeks of boot camp, but through the summer. I’m not sure he realizes it, but the example he sets, his dedication and support, is something we all admire. So yeah, I do want to be the next John Ewing. That would be pretty cool.”