HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS SPEND SIX WEEKS AS BIOENGINEERING RESEARCHERS

If you ask Greensboro high school student Brianna Hargett what she did over the summer, you won’t get a typical answer. She’ll tell you about her research in automatic imaging analysis of biomaterials.

Ms. Hargett and five fellow students from local high schools didn’t have ordinary summers. They spent six weeks as hands-on bioengineering researchers at the Engineering Research Center (ERC) at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

As participants in the ERC’s Young Scholars program, they worked on the center’s core projects alongside N.C. A&T professors and graduate students, as well as eight local high school and community college teachers and nine undergraduates from universities around the nation.  (Details on their research teams and projects are below.)

Shira Chandler and Dondre McCaskill worked on the design and analysis of biodegradable magnesium screws to reconstruct knee ligaments.

For Ephraim Bililign, it was design and testing of biomedical materials, and Aditya Garg worked on corrosion testing of magnesium alloys.  Aditya Badve was part of a team working on how to improve those studies.

They’re all excellent students, but when ERC researchers talk about them, another word that keeps coming up is “driven.”

“It’s big stuff that they’re working on, but they love it because they’re hanging with the big guys,” says Dr. Jagannathan Sankar, ERC director and professor of mechanical engineering.

The ERC is mandated by its funder, the National Science Foundation, to provide exposure to its new technology to high school students and teachers and to undergraduates from other universities. 

That outreach work is educational, but it isn’t separate from the research. 

“The young scholars, when they came in, had expectations of doing busywork, but within a week or two they realized that they were really contributing to the research enterprise,” said Dr. Devdas Pai, ERC outreach director and professor of mechanical engineering.

By selecting accomplished teachers and high-achieving students, the center brings in a group that contributes to its research even while learning about both the technology itself and the practical aspects of being science and engineering researchers.

In addition to learning bioengineering, the students and teachers also received professional-development training, inside and outside the lab.  They learned first-hand how to work as research scientists – the challenges, standards, and expectations.  “People don’t know the amount of effort and stress that goes into this,” Sankar says.

The Young Scholars, teachers and undergraduates also attended weekly seminars with the year-round ERC researchers, covering such topics as research ethics, bioethics, and entrepreneurship in addition to technical subjects.  For researchers today, simply knowing science isn’t enough.

“Each project is like a small business,” Sankar says.  “You have a budget. You have competitors; who is patenting, what industries are interested?”

There also were visits to other research labs, such as ERC partner OrthoKinetic Technologies in Southport and the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.  In addition, special enrichment programs included training for the teachers in creating classroom teaching modules and instruction for the students in writing resumes. 

The ERC is more properly known as the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials.  Its goal is to develop biocompatible, magnesium-based materials for surgical implants to be used in orthopedic, craniofacial and cardiovascular operations.  Once the patient’s body has recovered to the extent it no longer needs the implant, removal surgery will be avoided as the implant is signaled to degrade and pass out of the body.

Originally a five-year, $18 million project awarded in 2008, the ERC’s success has earned an extension of at least three years and $12 million.

That means for at least three more summers, top local high school students and teachers will learn first-hand what advanced bioengineering research is all about. More K-12 and community college teachers will then bring their new knowledge of science and technology into their classrooms.  And more high school students will take some big steps toward joining the next generation of scientists and engineers.