Diverse high school students get hands-on, real-world lab experience at BU through STEM Pathways

By Patrick L. Kennedy

If it were an ordinary summer, teenager Nicolas Rojas Taborda would “probably just be at home,” he said one weekday in July 2023, “or maybe working a part-time job.”

Instead, Taborda and ten other Boston-area high school students spent five weeks working full-time in the labs of BME faculty researchers Alex Green, Erica Pratt, and Wilson Wong. They grew plasmids, learned mini-prep and cloning, and helped Wong, for example, in his ongoing efforts to develop cancer-killing T-cells. They got to pepper their undergrad and grad student mentors with “20 million questions” about the lab work, said Taborda, and those mentors patiently and thoroughly answered every query. What’s more, the teens attended professional development workshops as well as seminars where they learned about the work of other ENG faculty researchers, who opened the students’ eyes to the many sub-fields that crisscross within and around synthetic biology.

“This program convinced me to major in biomedical engineering,” said Taborda, a native Colombian who is on track to be the first member of his family to attend college.

This summer research experience is the latest addition to STEM Pathways, an outreach program whose mission is to broaden the pipeline producing tomorrow’s engineers, with a particular focus on synthetic biology. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense and administered by Professor Doug Densmore (ECE, BME, MSE), the program is affiliated with Boston University’s Biological Design Center (BDC).

The high school juniors and seniors accepted into the summer program are demonstrably gifted, academically qualified, demographically underrepresented, aspiring first-generation college students. Summer 2024 will mark the program’s second year.

College admissions officers today expect would-be STEM majors to boast wet-lab experience, says Hailey Lenn Gordon, executive director of STEM Pathways. But, “there’s a disparity,” says Gordon. “Not all schools have an AP Biology class or a lab that can do centrifuging, while other students are able to pay to do summer internships.

Hailey Gordon, STEM Pathways director.

“What’s different about STEM Pathways is that we’re paying the students to do research here on campus,” Gordon explains. “So they don’t have to make that decision, ‘Should I get a job over the summer, or should I advance my academic credentials?’” Instead, they can do both.

It’s hard to overstate the benefits, for STEM-inclined students, of getting the opportunity to do consistent, hands-on work in a state-of-the-art lab that is working on real-world solutions—whether it’s helping to design liquid biopsy assays for non-invasive cancer monitoring (as in Pratt’s lab) or using machine learning to generate novel RNA sensors in paper-based diagnostics (Green’s). That’s not everyday experience for most kids under age 18. Even in a high-quality high school, any lab work must be crammed into periods of 45 minutes or so, spaced weeks apart.

“Here, it visibly all comes together every day,” says Gordon. “Because they’re here from 9 to 5, they can see an experiment run from start to finish. They’re learning the steps of mini-prep and cloning, and they can do that multiple times.”

Also key is the chance to hear from a variety of faculty researchers—such as tissue engineer Professor Christopher Chen (BME, MSE) and genetic circuit engineer Professor Ahmad “Mo” Khalil (BME)—who discuss their work in Friday seminars.

“It gave me a better view on what career paths are available.” said Hadeeqah Gazi. “It got me thinking about engineering as a major.”

“Before I came to this program, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” said Thomas Ghile. “I knew I liked science, coding, and math, but I didn’t know how to tie all that into a career.” Now, Ghile hopes to become a bioinformatics software developer.

The high school program joins other pillars of STEM Pathways, which was launched in 2015. For example, a summer research experience is also available for college undergraduate students. Registration is now open for summer 2024. (Visit the STEM Pathways website for more information.)

Moreover, a cohort of BU undergraduate students work in BDC labs year-round, and many travel to Paris for the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, designing and building a system using interchangeable biological parts and standard molecular biology techniques. BU’s 2022 iGEM team took home a gold medal and a nomination for Best Environment Project, while the 2023 squad earned a silver medal and a nomination for Best Software Tool.

There’s more for high schoolers, too. In addition to the five-week research experience for qualified students, STEM Pathways hosts Saturday STEM workshops year-round, open to all high school students curious about science and engineering. That’s what brought many of Green’s, Pratt’s, and Wong’s young charges to campus in the first place. The next STEM Pathways event for high school students is the Mini-Jamboree on February 10. (More info is here, and registration is here.)

“Being here and learning about specific fields like cancer research and CAR-T cell therapy,” says Taborda, “has really helped me realize that this is something I can do in the future.”