RUSTON — For many high school students, summer is a time for family trips, extra sleep, and driving class, but six Lincoln Parish students engaged in research with professors in Biomedical and Chemical Engineering as a part of the Research and Engineering Apprenticeship Program (REAP) at Louisiana Tech University.
The 2021 cohort for REAP included rising juniors from Ruston High School – Jayda Butler, Alexis Goree, and Landry Pyles – and Simsboro High School – Vanessa Bautista, Jadyn Bradley, and Lauryn Vernon.
REAP at Louisiana Tech has been funded through the Army Educational Outreach Program (AEOP) since 2019, and past cohorts have included students from Ruston, Simsboro, and Gibsland-Coleman High. Summer 2021 mentors, including Dr. Mary Caldorera-Moore, Dr. Mark DeCoster, and Dr. Joan Lynam, guided students in over 200 hours of research.
“I learned not only how to research but how to actually apply that and work with different materials,” Goree said. “I enjoyed being able to work with amazing mentors and students.”
Goree worked with metal organic biohybrids and studied how they degrade over time using a high-powered microscope. She also learned how to operate vital biological lab equipment such as a sonicator, an incubator, a hemocytometer, and a centrifuge.
“I have also been looking at culturing of human dermal fibroblasts and treating them with quantum dots,” Goree said. “Quantum dots are nanometer-sized fluorescent particles used for labeling live biological material in order to track, label, and identify specific biomolecules.”
Bradley and Bautista isolated concentrated urea from synthetic urine through a process called direct contact membrane distillation. Those concentrated urea samples were then stored in freezers for other research in making concrete.
Butler assisted Kyle Rugg in culturing cells, observing Dapi and Calcium imaging, and drying MOB synthesis products, along with a number of other lab procedures.
DeCoster’s apprentices had the opportunity to engage in weekly lab meetings.
“Alexis and Jayda came to our lab meetings and got to see research in action,” DeCoster said. “As the final day approached for them to give their poster presentations, they were nervous, but this is normal. They both did a great job, and Alexis and Jayda both helped to make final decisions about what would be in the posters they generated. These skills in communication can help the students in any field or career, but especially in science and engineering.”
Pyles worked with Caldorera-Moore to learn about the importance of hydrogels.
“Hydrogels are absorbent polymers that don’t dissolve in water and react differently to different environments,” Pyles said. “They are used for the transportation of drugs and are also used as wound dressings. They slowly become more acidic to counteract the basic environment present in a wound and they are designed to have a similar elasticity as that of living tissue to provide the most benefits possible when used as a wound dressing.”
Landry and Vernon learned how to make hydrogels using chitosan, and tested their strength and durability.
“The mentors were great and I built many friendships with the graduate and undergrad students,” Vernon said. “I really enjoyed being able to do something new and step out of the box to expand my knowledge. Before this program, I had no clue what a hydrogel was or even anything in the biomedical field. Now I can walk away from this experience with new connections to people and to science.”
Louisiana Tech’s STEM Collective for Innovative Louisiana Stakeholders (SCILS) also supported the program.
“Encouraging and fostering the efforts of our future STEM leaders falls right in line with the goal of the state’s LaSTEM initiative as we not only leverage resources to expand robust STEM efforts across the state, but also create positive momentum around workforce development opportunities,” said Cathi Cox-Boniol, interim SCILS Director. “Certainly helping these students achieve the highest levels of success within the REAP program has in turn allowed SCILS to meet its own goals of providing equitable access to exemplary STEM experiences throughout our region while helping assure a positive trajectory for these outstanding young people.”
Students receive up to $3,000 for their work in the labs and can apply each year of high school to participate. More information and applications for REAP can be found online at https://www.usaeop.com/program/high-school-apprenticeships/ or by emailing CTC@latech.edu.