Scientists have found that excessive buildup of brain plaque brings on Alzheimer’s. If you’re a high school student with dreams of being a scientist, and the subject interests you, a high speed connection gives you access to unlimited amounts of information. Generating some data of your own, though, will unfortunately have to wait for advanced degrees and stewardship under a hierarchical team of researchers. That’s unless you are enrolled in Fox Lane High School’s Science Research Program in Bedford.
Chemistry teacher Erin Rent leads the class and the above example comes directly from, Charlotte Herber, one of her current students. “How can we get rid of these plaques, which are causing Alzheimer’s, but leave the brain intact,” she says is her student’s point of study.
But just because Fox Lane is situated in this very affluent section of Northern Westchester doesn’t mean the campus has a university level research center, renowned scientists on staff or even a small cache of afflicted brain tissue. Instead, as sophomores, in the three year endeavor, students reach out to an expert in hopes of acquiring the needed mentor and the research lab that goes with him or her. “It’s completely driven by the student,” says the third year Fox Lane faculty member.
Of course, before all that the student must hone in on an area and get it down to a specific topic. So the summer after freshman year, students are to read science articles in popular magazines and then bring in their favorites for the first day. “If you have a lot of computer science articles stacked up,” she says, “you’re obviously drawn there.”
The broader piles in place, the kids embark on their adventure excitedly by doing some more…reading? Delving into scientific journals, she says, “at first they’re not so thrilled, but sometimes you have to take the long way around.”
Meaning they become conversant in the form and structure of journal articles – thus making the content decipherable. Once that can be done, she believes it becomes a matter of being led by their true passions and interests until the specifics emerge.
Helping them pare down the broader topic, computer science may give way to artificial intelligence. Then to complete their focus, Rent utilizes the interdisciplinary nature of science.
For example, a secondary interest in devices for the disabled merges nicely with the IA. Combining the two interests, she says, “I guarantee, there’s a research project going on in that field.”
A scientist should then emerge and now they have something to talk about when the student reaches out. “That may lead to earning a position in their lab,” says Rent.
On the other hand, the collaboration could lay dead on arrival, but a healthy impression can have rewards. “If they can’t take them on, maybe the scientist can connect them to someone who can,” she says.
Otherwise, once the connection is made teacher, mentor and student all meet to discuss the progression of the project, how the mentor will support the student and what will be the agreed upon goals. “So together we can create a learning experience where this is meaningful and special rather than just putting them in a lab and hoping they’ll learn something,” she says.
But no matter how many iterations it takes to land a mentor, it’s a lesson in persistence that applies – especially when the real heavy lifting is to come. “That’s a characteristic of a true scientist,” she says.
In scientific notation, this means seeing “negative results” as opportunities. “They are still results. They’ve just shown you something that doesn’t work and it doesn’t mean you’re completely wrong. It means you need to look at it in a different way. That’s what we do in science,” she says.
The same goes for giving back, which is why mentors get involved, and the end result has actually had some of her students switching places. “After three years, they all write a research paper like a journal article, and some have actually had their work published,” she says.
Short of achieving a byline, the work introduces them quite nicely on college applications and goes even further in person. “They can use it as a point of conversation in an admission interview,” says Rent.
She gets a little something extra too. “I couldn’t ask for a better position. I couldn’t have designed a better course. It is a dream come true,” she concludes.
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