June 2, 2016

‘Young Scientist’ showcases high schoolers’ research at Vanderbilt

High school students performing advanced research at Vanderbilt have the opportunity to share their findings with the scientific community through a journal of their own.

magazine coverAs it has for the past six years, Vanderbilt University has provided the opportunity for high school students, including 11 from Metropolitan Nashville public schools, to have the research they conducted at Vanderbilt published in a journal.

Young Scientist is the brainchild of Jens Meiler, associate professor of chemistry, and Chris Vanags, associate director of the Center for Science Outreach (CSO). In 2010, Meiler and Vanags were inspired by Meiler’s experience publishing in a scientific journal for high school students while growing up in Germany. “I remember how motivating it was not just writing the paper but also publishing it in a journal,” Meiler said. Vanags was eager for students like those at the CSO’s School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV) program to have a similar experience and be able to communicate the high-level work they were doing in research labs.

These are not your typical science-fair egg drops and volcanoes. The latest edition of Young Scientist features papers on “Regulation of Pro-Inflammatory Phenotypes by Carcinogenic and Non-Carcinogenic Heliobacter pylori Strains,” “Measuring the Degradation of Robot Components Caused by Gamma Radiation” and “Molecular Origins of the Ultra-Low Friction Exhibited by Biocompatible Zwitterionic Polymer Brushes.”

Not only do they look and sound like real scientific papers – they are. Each one represents a genuine discovery. “In fact, the work in Young Scientist is so high class, some labs preferred their students not to publish here because they were concerned it would prevent the students from publishing the same work in a scientific journal later on,” said Charles Brau, professor of physics, emeritus, who took over as editor in 2014, and continued in this role until his retirement this year.

With each edition — though graduate student mentors and supervising professors contribute — the high school students shoulder the bulk of writing the paper. Once the paper is submitted, it goes to the review committee, just like a professional journal. The reviewers send their notes back to the student, who then revises the paper to address any suggestions and concerns. Sometimes, as many professional scientists can relate to, it takes several revisions to get it right.

“[lquote]The only difference between Young Scientist and a ‘real journal’ is that the reviewers were instructed to help students through the writing process, not just offer critiques[/lquote],” said Brau. The reviewers coach students on grammar and citations as well as audience-appropriateness. Because Young Scientist is a general science journal, all submissions have to be understandable to any scientifically literate person, not just a specialist in the student’s field.

The review committee comprises graduate students and postdocs, most of whom have never reviewed before. “So the journal provides a secondary educational benefit, because it helps our graduate students gain experience as reviewers as well,” said Meiler.

“Reviewing for the Young Scientist provided me the opportunity to understand the academic writing process early on in my graduate career—notably how to give and receive constructive criticism,” said Thushara Gunda, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering. “These insights have helped me navigate through the publication process for my dissertation research.”

Lilly Ekem (Courtesy LE)

Lilly Ekem, an SSMV student who just graduated from Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet High School and is heading to Yale this fall, published a paper detailing her research into the inhibitory effect of certain chemical compounds on a protein linked to the metastasis of breast cancer to the bone. Her graduate student mentor, Alyssa Merkel, and supervisor, Assistant Professor of Medicine Julie Sterling, provided feedback along the way. Writing the paper reflected on the most appealing part of science to Ekem: the sharing of knowledge. “I like knowing that other labs can build on the science I am doing,” she said. “I like the community aspect of it.”

Thomas Massion (Courtesy TM)
Thomas Massion (Courtesy TM)

Thomas Massion, another SSMV student who just graduated from Hume-Fogg Academic High School and will attend Northwestern in the fall, analyzed the hundreds of minute movements a hummingbird performs while turning mid-flight while studying in Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Haoxing Luo’s lab. His co-author and graduate student mentor Jialei Song helped him clarify concepts and find ways to explain his findings to non-engineers. Though he thinks he’s more interested in pursuing computer science than mechanical engineering, Massion says having the end-to-end experience from experiment to publication was valuable. “It exposed me to what real STEM research is like.”

Lilly and Thomas are both graduates of the SSMV, a partnership between the CSO and Metro Nashville Schools. It’s a four-year program that provides advanced STEM education to local high school students. Most submissions to Young Scientist come from participants in that program and CSO’s summer Research Experience for High School Students, but any high school student performing research on Vanderbilt’s campus is eligible to submit. In fact, in past years Young Scientist has accepted and published research by students from other parts of the country.

The other students who published in this year’s issue are:

  • Yasmin Alvarado-Rayo (John Overton High School): “Constructing Mobile Device Application to Interact with Modular Robotics Toolkit over Bluetooth”
  • F. Eduardo Corea-Dilbert (Hume-Fogg): “Regulation of Pro-Inflammatory Phenotypes by Carcinogenic and Non-Carcinogenic Heliobacter pylori Strains”
  • Jennifer N. Cottle (Overton): “Effects of Variable Host Plant Toxins on Aphis nerii Performance”
  • Lillian E. Ekem (Martin Luther King): “Assessment of Hedgehog/GLI2 Signaling Inhibitors Within Metastatic Breast Cancers”
  • Vincent Harris (Martin Luther King): “Obesity Contributes to an Accumulation of Ly6chigh Pro-Inflammatory Monocytes in the Spleen and White Adipose Tissue”
  • Rebecca M. Hood (Martin Luther King): “Measuring the Degradation of Robot Components Caused by Gamma Radiation”
  • James S. Kyne (Hume-Fogg): “Improving Patterned Nanoporous Gold as an Effective Surface-Enhanced Raman Scattering Template”
  • Thomas Massion (Hume-Fogg): “Determining the Turning Wing Kinematics of Ruby-Throated Hummingbird”
  • F.K. Morgan-Curtis (Hume-Fogg): “Classification of Infant Cries Using Acoustic Features”
  • Saba Rehman (Hume-Fogg): “Characterization of the Downstream Effects of Apical Mistrafficking of Epiregulin and Potential for Transformation in Polarized Epithelial Cells”
  • William L. Roussell (Hillsboro High School): “Molecular Origins of the Ultra-Low Friction Exhibited by Biocompatible Zwitterionic Polymer Brushes”

Young Scientist is entirely volunteer-run. Funding and operational support has been almost entirely the effort of CSO. Printing is supported by private donations. Copies of the journal are available online or may be requested by email.