NORMAL — Boot camp. That's how an Illinois State University faculty member describes what he is put a group of high school students through this week as part of the Summer Research Academy.
Eighty students are taking part in this year's academy, with 13 of then performing original research in the Molecular Neuroethology Lab — also known as “the worm lab” — on the third floor of the Science Lab Building.
“I treat this like it's kind of a boot camp,” said Andres Vidal-Gadea, an assistant professor in the biological sciences department.
Students — many of whom haven't been in a research lab before — are thrown into the thick of things, learning lab procedures and techniques along with detailed observation and record-keeping.
Their youth and eagerness to learn are advantages, said Vidal-Gadea, adding with a smile, "They can learn faster. So far it's working. We haven't lost anyone.”
All but three of this year's participants are from Illinois, said Amy Bloom, assistant director of outreach for the Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology.
In addition to the students working on molecular neuroscience with Vidal-Gadea, others are doing hands-on work in biochemistry with professor Marjorie Jones, organic chemistry with associate professor Andrew Mitchell and information technology with associate professor Glen Sagers.
ISU started the research academy in 2010.
This is the second year Vidal-Gadea has been part of the academy. He enjoys working with the young students.
“They have bright minds for a bright future,” said Vidal-Gadea, who has been at ISU since January 2015.
But he also likes the experience his ISU students get working with younger students who are contributing to their research related to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It gives them teaching-mentoring experience, he said.
“For my students, it helps them learn their own projects,” said Vidal-Gadea. “They are going to be asked questions they haven't thought of before.”
Angelica Rodriguez of Rockford, an ISU graduate student in biology, said the teaching experience was “sometimes stressful” but “when you see the students understand why they're doing what they're doing, it's exciting.”
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She also was impressed by how quickly the students picked up what they needed to do.
“By the end of the second day, … they're all so independent,” she said.
In their high school classrooms, they are “doing experiments that have been done a million times before” and for which the outcomes are already known, said Vidal-Gadea. “Here, it's exactly the opposite. We don't know the answer. It's never been done before.”
That's part of what attracted Summer Will of Hudson, who will be a junior at Blair Academy in New Jersey this fall.
“It's extraordinary to be working hard on something that can help people with this disease even if we're just kids,” she said. “I've always liked helping people.”
The research involves C. elegans, a transparent nematode — or tiny “worm” — that can mimic the effects of Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Teams of students are studying how exercise, such as burrowing through gelatin, is helpful or detrimental and also measuring effects on bodily functions.
“We make worms with muscular dystrophy exercise by mimicking 'endurance training' with swimming or 'strength training' with burrowing,” Vidal-Gadea explained.
Dyes allow them to observe the muscles through special microscopes. Vidal-Gadea said the muscles light up when the worms flex them.
Alex Kullman of Bloomington, entering his senior year at University High School, said, “I wasn't expecting to do actual research for the lab. … You're really contributing.”
Calis Lim of Bloomington, who will be a University High School junior, said, “I feel like I'm getting to be a part of something bigger,” she said.
Lim, like several of the young students, said she became interested in science at a young age.
“Science is the future,” said Lim. “It is a constantly moving train that's constantly moving forward.”