Lauren Strong, a community college student from Pennsylvania, was searching for an internship that would allow her to develop her engineering skills and feel more at home in a lab. Local high school science teacher George DeGregorio was looking for ways to develop his underprivileged students’ interest in science. Both are pursuing their goals thanks to two new summer nanotechnology research programs offered at Boston University’s Photonics Center. The purpose of the programs—both funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)—is to promote diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.
Strong recalls her first year in college, at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008. “I was in computer science, and in my class I was the only woman, and the only black woman, and that really says a lot,” she says.
DeGregorio, a science teacher at East Boston High School, says that most of his students “couldn’t even imagine themselves being a scientist. There seems to be a disconnect, and I am trying to break those walls down.”
The purpose of the two programs, NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates and NSF Research Experiences for Teachers, “is to make authentic research experiences available for underrepresented minority undergraduates or for teachers who work in underresourced schools,” according to Bennett Goldberg, director of BU’s STEM Education Initiatives and a principal investigator of the teachers’ program. The programs allow participants “to engage in the deep learning that happens with getting involved in research, the whole cycle of inquiry, because that’s so important to developing the skill sets and minds of students,” says Goldberg, a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor of physics and a College of Engineering (ENG) professor of electrical and computer engineering and of biomedical engineering.
“What we tried very hard to do this year was focus strongly on diversity among the students that were coming in and to focus on teachers who were serving underprivileged Boston-area schools,” says Photonics Center director Thomas Bifano, an ENG professor of mechanical engineering.
Strong is one of 11 students enrolled in the undergraduate program, about half of them from colleges that offer little in the way of research opportunities in engineering disciplines such as materials science and biomedical engineering. As a computer science major at Penn, she had felt her odd-woman-out status and found that the predominantly young and male engineers often “don’t take you as seriously as they should. They live in a bubble and they’re not used to seeing people of color and women doing these things and excelling at these things,” she says.
She left school after a year and traveled, working in China for a while as an au pair, before returning to college last year at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, still planning a career in science or engineering.
The college “does have an engineering program but doesn’t offer any research opportunities,” she says. “So you’re pretty much just taking their core classes. You’re not really getting any hands-on experience with engineering or photonics or anything like that.”
She discovered the BU program on a Facebook page for women engineers while looking for a summer internship and was surprised when her last-minute application was accepted. Since arriving on campus, she’s been working with graduate students in the lab of Roberto Paiella, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering. Her research involves studying different processes to etch a silicon wafer to a depth of only 500 nanometers, just one preparatory step in a complex project to transmit data between chips via laser.
“It’s completely new to me—I never did anything like that,” Strong says. “Here, they kinda just throw you in. I’m like, ‘Uh, you want me to touch this $100,000-plus equipment?’ I was nervous about breaking everything I touched.”
But she’s adjusted quickly, and the work is paying real benefits in skills and experience that will set her apart from other undergraduates, she says. And it will also look good on her transcript when applying to four-year colleges next year and later to graduate school.
“It’s everything,” she says. “Coming here, working with the grad students, seeing what they’re doing…gives me ideas for what I want to do. It allows me to focus a lot more on the end goal.”
“Lauren came into my office the other day and said, ‘Helen, I’ve been bitten! I’ve been bitten by the research bug!’” says Helen E. Fawcett (GRS’97), an ENG research assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Photonics Center manager of operations and technical programs, and co–principal investigator of both NSF programs. “And I said, ‘Uh-oh, because you were sure computer science was your major.’”
A thrilling, occasionally boggling experience
The Research Experiences for Teachers program brings teachers from high-need Boston-area high schools and community colleges to BU to work with faculty on research projects. The goal is for them to return to their classroom and convey to their students the excitement created by doing hands-on research.
DeGregorio’s parents grew up in East Boston, and he spent a lot of time there as a child. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from UMass Amherst and a master’s in science education from Suffolk University. “I wasn’t interested in going corporate,” he says. “Teaching is: I don’t feel like I have a job in the traditional sense. I have a lot of autonomy in the classroom to be myself. I get to make these connections and help kids. It’s a way to do something positive.”
He has spent his entire career at East Boston High, where he teaches a variety of life sciences classes. He says he feels a deep connection to the school, which his mother and his aunts and uncles attended. Many of today’s students are from Central American immigrant families, rather than the predominantly Italian families when he was young.
“It’s always been a great place for me,” DeGregorio says. “There have been challenges for each of the 17 years I’ve been there. It’s never been a wealthy neighborhood. It’s usually been an immigrant neighborhood.” Almost all of his students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, he says, and for many, perhaps a majority, English is not their primary language.
“We’re trying to move the school forward,” he says.
He applied to the BU program instead of teaching summer school and says it’s a thrilling and occasionally boggling experience: “You’re working in real labs that are producing real scientific papers that are influencing industry. Other projects are sprouting from the ones they’ve got going here. It’s the real deal.”
DeGregorio has spent the summer working with grad students in Bifano’s lab, setting up a high-tech optical system that among other things can look below the surface of live tissue at the cellular level. As part of his research, he found himself at one point dispatched to the Medical Campus to pick up some nematodes that had been genetically engineered so their neurons fluoresce. “There’s science fiction coming to life in here,” he says with a laugh.
But his goals for the summer are serious and long-term. “Whatever connections can be made,” he says, “they can help students perceive themselves in science, number one, in college, number two, and at a prestigious institution like BU, number three.”
The programs have been interwoven to a degree. The teacher program runs for six weeks in the summer, the undergrad program for ten weeks, with the last six weeks overlapping with the teacher program. In most cases the arriving teachers were partnered with the undergraduates, who had already found their feet at BU, a little bit of a role reversal. “I worried about it, especially in my lab,” says Xin Zhang, an ENG professor of mechanical engineering and co–principal investigator of the undergraduate program. “Turned out I was thrilled to see them happily and professionally working together.”
The Photonics Center will make an ongoing effort to help both groups transfer their summer experiences back to their classrooms.
“We’re not going to say in August, ‘Bye! Great knowing you! See ya!’ We’re going to keep in touch with these students, help them out for grad school,” says Fawcett. “We’re not going to say to the teachers, ‘Great, have fun putting that in your classroom!’ The expectation is we are creating a community of nanontechnology STEM teachers, and each year we’re going to have a STEM seminar…and grow that community.”
There’s also a concerted effort to provide a well-rounded experience for both the undergraduates, who live on campus, and the teachers, including brown-bag lunches on topics from the fundamentals of photonics to getting into grad school, as well as field trips to the Museum of Science and the Freedom Trail.
“There’s a very strong sense in this community of the value of STEM education, the value of education in general,” Bifano says. “It’s not a do-good thing just to do good; it’s a thing that we more or less have built into the cloth of the place.”
A version of this article was originally published in BU Today.