Maria Gonzalez Garcia, a student at North Forsyth High School, had never heard the word “stickiness” until this summer.
On Friday, she stood at a table in the lobby of Wake Downtown, using language learned from a scientist, tossing out terms as fanciful as “layered viscous fluid” and “fluid dynamics” as she explained what she had done in the past six weeks.
Nearby, other local high school students were talking about fibrin molecules, electron paramagnetic resonance, and red blood cell morphology.
“It took me out of my comfort zone,” Maria said.
She was one of 12 students chosen to participate in a new six-week paid internship developed by Wake Forest University. The Lab Experiences: Academics and Professions program – or LEAP – gave local students interested in math and science the opportunity to conduct laboratory research alongside Wake Forest mentors, usually a faculty member and a graduate student .
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At Friday’s symposium, the students made charts outlining their research and answering questions, marking the end of the internship.
The Burroughs Wellcome Fund provided Wake Forest with a three-year grant for the program. It will expand over the next two years, growing from 12 this year to 18 next year and 24 in the third year.
The goal is to find money to sustain the program after the grant expires, said Rebecca Alexander, director of Wake Downtown and professor of chemistry at Wake Forest.
The internship is for Title 1 high school students in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools. Title 1 schools are schools where more than 40% of students are from low-income families.
“A lot of us have had high school students in our labs,” Alexander said, “but they’re usually the children of friends of friends, and they tend to be privileged students. We wanted to change that. “
Students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have been identified in schools. Each received $1,800 to cover what the students might have earned in summer employment. The program also paid for meals and transportation for students who needed them.
They were paired with faculty members doing all kinds of research, some of it in the field. Angel Vargas Sanchez, a rising junior in North Forsyth, visited Pilot Mountain State Park as part of his research into why so many trees in the park fail to reach maturity. Aaliyah Hill, a rising Kennedy High senior, took water samples at Salem Creek to study filtration methods.
As part of the internship, students had to interview professionals in their fields of interest. Maziel Valerrabano-Bernal, a rising junior at Kennedy, was able to talk to astrophysicists from Harvard University. Maziel aspires to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Maria, who wants to become a nurse, spoke to several nurses and learned different paths to get into the field, such as going to community college first and then four-year college.
Students also had to practice public speaking in preparation for their presentations and learn how to use libraries to verify their research, said Alana James, associate director of community engagement for Wake Downtown.
“The confidence I saw in them was multiplied by 10,” James said.
Some students reconsider what they want to study based on the internship. Aaliyah, for example, now plans to pursue environmental law based on what she has learned about pollutants in local waterways.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer or a judge, but I got a whole new perspective,” she said. “It really opened my eyes.”
Fatima Pichataro Martinez, a rising senior at Parkland, has always had a scientific mind. She came to enjoy the weeks she spent in a lab studying the shape of cells.
“If you had asked me before, I would have said I wanted to be a nurse or a caregiver, but now I’m thinking biomedical engineer,” she said. “It’s like an open door to a whole new career that I could possibly do.”