Celebrating 34 years of Excellence in High School Research
Over 550 high school students have participated in the Research Internship in Science & Engineering Program since it began in 1978. Here is a look through time at what some of our former interns are doing now and what they have to say about their time at BU.
George Zimmerman, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Physics, Boston University
Mentor and Co-founder of the BU Research Internship in Science & Engineering Program
"We started this program because we were interested in spreading the love of science. Our students learn a very valuable lesson: that science is a relatively disorganized search for truth. Very often you don't discover what you set out to discover. Both excitement and frustration are a part of the scientific process."
Robin Blumberg Selinger, Ph.D.
Professor of Chemical Physics at the Liquid Crystal Institute, Kent State University
BU Research Intern in Science & Engineering, 1979
I work on theory and simulation of a novel class of materials called liquid crystal elastomers that function like artificial muscles. They can change length when you stimulate them by heating or cooling, by applying an electric or magnetic field, or by shining light on them.
With funding from the National Science Foundation, I'm trying to understand what controls the mechanical response of these materials, and to create modeling and simulation tools that will allow engineers to design new applications.
Research Internship Project:
I worked in an area called percolation, which is intermediate between physics and math. Essentially, it is the geometry of connectivity.
For example, imagine taking a window screen, a square lattice of wires, and snipping the wires at random. When you've reached a high enough density of snipped bonds, the window screen will fall into pieces and it will no longer conduct electricity from one side to the other. But just before you break the last bond that makes it fall into pieces—at what you would call the percolation threshold—some very interesting things happen.
It turns out that by exploring such simple systems through a computer simulation, it is possible to learn about critical phenomena and phase transitions in real materials like water. So under the supervision of Professor Gene Stanley, I wrote computer code to perform simulations of a percolation model. I was a beginner at programming, but luckily I got plenty of help from graduate students and post-doctoral researchers in the group.
In the world of 1979, scientific computing was a real challenge. The memory in BU's IBM mainframe computer at that time was much smaller than what you'll find in your cell phone today! We ran our simulations overnight so that we didn't disrupt other users during the day.
I was planning to pursue a career in medicine. I knew that the study of science was important preparation for medical school. But as a result of the program, I decided that physics and chemistry were so exciting that I chose to pursue a science career instead.
Professor Stanley was so enthusiastic and encouraging that at the end of six weeks when my project wasn't completely finished, he helped me make arrangements to stay for the rest of the summer. He stands out as someone who knows how to motivate a student just beginning to do research. He used to literally jump up and down when I would bring him results. Together with grad student Jerry Shlifer, we produced a scientific publication before I even started college. Here's the citation:
My work with Professor Stanley ended up being absolutely formative, and it continued throughout my final year of high school, and even into my undergraduate and doctoral work at Harvard. I literally grew up in his research group. He has a real talent for creating a sense of community and generating excitement over science.
A summer research experience is the best way to know for sure if you want to make a career as a scientist. How do you find out if you have a real knack for scientific research? You have to try it out. In a program like this, you find out if research really rings your bell, and if your interest is intense enough to let you work really hard and accomplish something important.
Jeffrey Jacobson, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Medicine and Specialist in Pulmonary Care, University of Chicago Medical School
BU Research Intern in Science & Engineering, 1987
I have an academic position with clinical responsibilities, which means that I conduct research and also care for patients.
Right now, my lab is working to understand how inflammation and injury to endothelial cells—the cells that line blood vessels—can lead to acute lung injury. In response to inflammation, pulmonary endothelial cells leak fluid into the lung. And that can be overwhelming. A patient with a bad case of pneumonia, or anyone suffering from a systemic infection, might become unable to breathe for this reason. We want to know how these cells become leaky, and what we can do to prevent it.
We think that a class of drugs called statins, which are commonly used to lower cholesterol—Zocor and Lipitor are prominent examples—might be able to reduce the degree of leakage in inflamed cells.
We first treated human pulmonary endothelial cells with statins, and we observed that they tighten up vascular barriers and therefore prevent leaking. Next we tested statins in a mouse model of acute lung injury and again found that they served a protective function. We have now moved on to a clinical trial with our patients at the University of Chicago Hospital. If our hypothesis is correct, then statins might become standard treatment for anyone who enters the hospital with an infection.
Research Internship Project:
I worked in a physics laboratory with Professor George Zimmerman, where I generated intercalated graphic compounds. Graphite is composed of carbon atoms. I inserted other compounds between these atoms—a process called intercalation—in order to determine how they affected the conductivity of the graphite.
I had a strong interest in science and I wanted an experience that would allow me to conduct research over the summer. Looking back on it, I realize now that it was an amazing opportunity to experiment and learn under ideal conditions. You had all the freedom in the world to explore, without the necessity of procuring a grant or publishing a paper. You can really push yourself to the limit. It's a time when there really is no bad question, and you have everything to gain.
When I entered the program, I really had no appreciation for how a lab actually functions, and I'm not sure how a high school student could gain that appreciation outside of this experience. The interest BU took in exposing me to how science works was invaluable to the course of my career. I was given a lot of autonomy to work on a well-designed project, and I was really welcomed into the lab. I would say if this is your interest, go for it!
My original interests were in math and physics, but I was torn because I did have an interest in caring for people as well. Now, as a research physician, I have both a human and a scientific component to my work. As a high school student, I didn't know that a career like the one I have now even existed.
Research Director for New America
Doctoral Student, Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois
BU Research Intern in Science & Engineering, 1991
I help coordinate the Wireless Future Program for New America, which is a public-interest think tank. Most of what I do is educate congressional staff and Federal Communications Commission staff about issues relating to telecommunication and how our current policies can be modified to better suit public interests, especially given the remarkable transformations in technology we've seen in recent years.
Right now I'm advocating for fair spectrum allocation, particularly in the realm of television. Given the availability of wireless technologies, there is no reason why the public couldn't have access to television broadcast in the same way they can utilize the Internet. In fact, there are enormous amounts of unused space on the television broadcast spectrum—these are public airwaves and the public should have access to this space.
The idea behind the Wireless Future Program is to develop technology and pursue policies that maximize public access to the various modes of media distribution—print, web, radio, television. For me, this is an ideal role. I get to combine my interests in science with my inclinations toward activism—and I am lucky to work with a great range of people: academics, policy makers, technology experts.
Research Internship Project:
I'm somewhat of an anomaly in that I participated in the research internship two summers in a row. My first summer I worked on chaos theory at the Polymer Test Center.
My second summer, I tried something quite different. I had gotten very involved in environmental activism, and I was able to join a lab researching organic pesticides. We varied the tannin and phenol levels in ferns to see if it affected the eating habits of geometrid caterpillars. It was great because the project involved field research as well as lab research—we went to the White Mountains in New Hampshire to collect caterpillars.
The research internship ended up being a real turning point for me. Despite the fact that I was very bright, I had really lost interest in school. And suddenly, it was like I was a kid in a candy shop. Learning was not just fun, but exhilarating.
It was amazing as a high school student to have the opportunity to participate in a significant study, one that had perhaps been years in the making. I found myself in an environment where I was not only able, but encouraged, to generate ideas and test them out. The experience was unlike anything I've ever done since, and unlike anything that most people have the privilege to experience.
My experience introduced me to the notion that there are huge problems to be solved—academic, social, and otherwise—and if you're not doing it, probably no one else is. The internship is a chance to pursue your own interests, to push yourself, to learn everything you can and be part of a team. By the end you'll be utterly exhausted, but utterly happy!
Senior, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
BU Research Intern in Science & Engineering, 2007
Research Internship Project:
Working with BU Professor Michael Ruane in the High Tech Tools and Toys Laboratory, I designed, programmed, and built a CAT Scanning robot using Legos, motors, several software programs, knitting needles, and lasers.
My interest in electrical engineering developed when I started playing the guitar. I wanted a nice amplifier, but my parents said they wouldn't buy me one—they didn't trust that I'd actually stick with the guitar. So, I found a design for one and built it myself!
I expected my research to work out just as I envisioned it. But I found out that when you actually put things together they don't always work. You hear it, you read it, but it's a different thing when it happens to you. There were definitely moments where I thought this simply wasn't going to come together, like when the translucent objects I tried to scan kept refracting my laser—including gummy bears! It took me time to find an effective procedure for testing my robot.
I had to find ways to solve many problems. It wasn't as if I had a list of alternatives when something failed. It was very different from anything at school. This was all about going out and figuring out how to do something. I had to improvise—it was very intellectually stimulating.
I built a CAT Scan in six weeks. The basis of my project was a failed master's thesis, and I still can't believe I got it to work. I can point to the tangible outcome of my efforts. The whole experience really confirmed my interests.
Michael Ruane, Ph.D.
Professor Emertius of Engineering, Boston University
Mentor, BU Research Internship in Science & Engineering Program
"Part of what this program does is distinguish a high school student from other accomplished, motivated young people. They do things that are indistinguishable from many undergraduate-level projects, and many have done things that impress graduate students. When they return to their senior year, they sometimes continue their work and enter it into some of the national science competitions."
Discover what your future in science holds.
Get started today by applying for the Research Internship in Science & Engineering