A series of rooms on the basement level of the Biotech Center houses the bones of the program: Millions of dollars in equipment that enables groundbreaking investigations into the molecular building blocks of life. Room after room, guarded by swiper-card readers, holds an impressive array of softly humming machinery with tongue-twisting names and the ability to peer down to the subatomic level. It’s not the sort of place you expect to find a high school student.
An even more unexpected find is thatas she deftly positions a slide on the optical tweezer/laser microdissection systemhigh school senior Adair Kleinpeter-Ross has a thorough understanding of the research she is conducting on the effects of collagen in bone tissue.
“What we’re really looking for is how many cross-links there are per collagen molecule in the bone samples,” Kleinpeter-Ross explains. “Cross-links make bone more brittle.”
Kleinpeter-Ross is an Emma Willard student, and one of a handful of high school students who regularly work in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS) as part of the High School Scholars’ Program, according to Glenn Monastersky, director of operations at CBIS. Monastersky said he and two faculty members at Emma Willard (a private independent school for girls located in Troy) launched the programunder which almost a dozen CBIS resident faculty host students in their biotech laboratoriesin 2008.
“We have been very grateful that our researchers have made the time to accommodate and include these young students in their research activities,” said Monastersky. “The students have the opportunity to observe and take part in competitive biotechnology research, to learn about life as a college student and, hopefully, to become determined to pursue a career as a scientist and/or engineer.”
In Kleinpeter-Ross’ case, an AP biology class led her to the laboratory of Deepak Vashishth, head and professor of biomedical engineering. In her first visitsafter bio-safety training Kleinpeter-Ross created 50 bone samples using the optical tweezers/laser micro-dissection system.
Sliding a sample into place, Kleinpeter-Ross recently demonstrated how the system allows her to view bone cells on a computer screen. “Bone grows in osteons, which look like tree rings,” she explained. “Once it gets old enough, it no longer follows the ring pattern.”
Kleinpeter-Ross also picked out a small section of young bonewhich looks like the cross-section of a tree branchand, using a mouse, drew a circle around the cells on the computer screen. A laser then cut the cell cluster from the rest of the section. She then used an adhesive-tipped plastic tube to extract the cluster from the larger sample.
Kleinpeter-Ross said she has been working closely with Ph.D. candidate Lamya Karim, who “took me under her wing.” After Kleinpeter-Ross isolated 50 samples, Karim taught her how to make chemical solutionsor “buffers” to dissolve the bone samples off the plastic tube, and then how to make the solutions to freeze and freeze-dry the samples without damaging them.
Kleinpeter-Ross still hasn’t settled on a college, much less a major. She’s interested in biology, law, and art historybut she appreciates the opportunity she’s had to conduct meaningful research. Of three internships she served in high school, her work at Rensselaer lands “at the top.”
“What’s nice is that Lamya has set me up with my own project so that I’ll see something from start to finish,” Kleinpeter-Ross said. “She gave me the samples, she taught me how to do the whole procedure from start to finish. Just like she does.”
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