A new group of Project ENGAGES students has been absorbed into the day-to-day fascia of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, while some familiar faces have disappeared from the landscape, leaving the Georgia Institute of Technology campus to pursue promising futures.
Six students from the inaugural class of Project ENGAGES graduated high school in the spring, and after working full-time through the summer, they’ve moved on with the next phase of their education. They are David Alexander (Valdosta State), Robert Hughley (Georgia College and State University), Solomon McBride (Brandeis University), Imani Moon (North Carolina A&T), Christopher Seaborn (Western Carolina University) and Jasmine Woodard (Howard University).
“I kind of hate to leave already, this has been a great experience,” says Hughley, now attending Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. “But I plan to be here again. I’d like to give something back, maybe help the next group of Project ENGAGES students, next summer.”
Meanwhile, a bunch of new high school students are working in labs across campus, including nine on the biotech track, based at the Petit Institute (eight new students are on the engineering track, developed under the leadership of the Georgia Tech Research Institute). Through Project ENGAGES, they’re provided an opportunity to do science, and get paid for their work, as opposed to just reading about it in a high school textbook – their time in the lab is a job, something a bit more interesting (and demanding) than flipping burgers or bagging groceries.
Still, Project ENGAGES seeks to do more than provide a part-time job (full-time in the summer) for some smart local high school kids. The program aims to raise the students’ awareness of the world of engineering, science and technology, and inspire them to dream big and consider wider possibilities that might not have been accessible to them before.
Golden opportunity or not, for some students it requires a larger-than-usual commitment, and a lot of drive with laser-like focus.
“Time management is the biggest challenge,” says Qwantayvious Stiggers, who answers to Tay but is called Stiggers by his colleagues in the Cellular and Macromolecular Engineering Lab run by Krish Roy. “You can’t waste time in this kind of program, and that’s the hardest thing – balancing lab work, sports and school. But I’m always busy. I don’t like being non-active, I can’t just do … nothing.”
Stiggers, who says he is never stuck in idle, is a senior at B.E.S.T. Academy, an all-boys school and one of three area high schools partnering with Georgia Tech in Project ENGAGES (the others are Coretta Scott King Women’s Leadership Academy and KIPP Atlanta Collegiate High School). He is juggling responsibilities and is determined to get the most of out of the Project ENGAGES experience. He’s the man of the house, the oldest of four boys who live with their mom. At school, he’s played for the football, basketball and golf teams, been involved with student government and the Spanish club, and is a member of the National Honor Society. His love of science was sparked in the seventh grade.
“I had a teacher who allowed us to do a lot of experiments, and that hands-on experience jump-started my mind,” says Stiggers, who took second place in the oral presentation competition at the Project ENGAGES Summer Celebration in August (see complete list of winners below this story). So, it’s still early in the second year of the program, but Stiggers seems to be somewhat typical of the high school researchers working now in Tech’s labs – over-achievers, most of them, ambitious and busy young people on the path to productive lives.
Alexus Clark, for example, is a junior at the King Women’s Leadership Academy (so she’ll be back for a second year, 2015-2016) who has been involved with Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) and Health Occupations Students of America for the past several years, and also participates in Junior Achievement, the F.A.S.T. Track Program and the Learners to Leaders program.
“I want to pursue pharmacology and start my own pharmaceutical company,” says Clark, who is getting her first taste of research, and she likes it. “I’ve had many shadowing opportunities but nothing compares to actually researching along with the best scientists in the world. I am no longer just learning about the subject, but applying it to real-world problems that have no solution for them.”
Yet. No solution yet. That’s another reason why Project ENGAGES exists – to help develop future generations of engineers and scientists who will find those solutions. Naturally, it takes a group effort – professors to offer their labs, and especially mentors culled from the graduate student body to work side by side with the high school students. Each first-year ENGAGES student is paired with a mentor following summer boot camp – they do this through a ‘speed-dating’ process.
Keeping in mind that the Project ENGAGES students are high school kids, and not trained scientists, there is a learning curve, which means mentors spend plenty of time drilling the fundamentals of research processes. Kirsten Parratt is Stiggers’ mentor (in Krish Roy’s Laboratory for Cellular and Macromolecular Engineering), and she spent the summer training him on the basics of cell culture, methacrylation chemistry, hydrogel production, and histology, with the hope, “that he’ll be able to perform these same techniques mostly unsupervised,” says Parratt, who considers her experience time well spent.
“I’ve found the mentoring experience very rewarding,” says Parratt, who already was a graduate research assistant in Roy’s lab. “I believe that all of the ENGAGES kids are getting a wonderful experience which will benefit them in college. The program has been well organized so that the mentors can work the kids into a graduate student schedule. It’s been helpful for my own studies as I’m forced to explain every aspect of a concept and realize quickly where the gaps in my knowledge are.”
And Stiggers is stretching his brain like he never has before, mental calisthenics for the long, productive road ahead. This is his senior of high school, and he’s considering his college choices, preferring Auburn, Clark Atlanta, the University of Tennessee, or Texas A&M, planning to focus on biomedical engineering, but minor in African-American studies.
“I don’t want to be seen as having just a science head,” he says. “But the reason I’m interested in science is because we will never know everything. It’s a continuing journey of search and discovery. The opportunities are wide open.”
Project ENGAGES Presentation Awards
1 – Katrina Burch (biotechnology)
2 (tie) – Qwyantavious Stiggers (biotechnology)
2 - MARC team – Christelle Ingram, Jessie Smith, Quentin Spear (engineering) Honorable Mention: Alexus Clark (biotechnology), Angelo Matos (engineering)
1 – Aundre Abner (engineering)
2 – Taren Carter (biotechnology) Honorable Mention: Jasmine Cutter (biotechnology), Kendreze Holland (biotechnology), Justin Hutchins (engineering), Jovanay Carter (biotechnology)