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Urban High School Students Present Original Science Research

Each year, young scientists around New York City have a chance to learn crucial and dynamic aspects of scientific research. As the school year draws to a close, they present the results of year-long research projects to their peers and mentors.

From left, high school seniors Alejandro Schmieder and Tatyana Graham with their mentor, Dr. Claudia Wultsch (Photo by Lois Elfman)From left, high school seniors Alejandro Schmieder and Tatyana Graham with their mentor, Dr. Claudia Wultsch (Photo by Lois Elfman)

The students’ research is conducted under the mentorship of scientists at the American Museum of Natural History as part of its Science Research Mentoring Program (SRMP) or at one of its 12 partner institution programs. The students in these programs undertake actual research projects, learn lab technique, work with a scientist mentor and receive a stipend. Their results showcase the importance of providing substantive experience and exposure for a diverse range of students with interest in STEM fields.

SRMP participants Tatyana Graham and Alejandro Schmieder presented their research, “Jaguar feeding ecology: advances from next-generation sequencing.” A senior at Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy, a public high school in the Bronx, Graham learned of a local science research program from a ninth-grade science teacher.

“She recognized my skill and passion in the subject,” said Graham. After participating in that 14-month internship, she was able to get into SRMP. “I’ve seen and been able to experience things that I never would have thought I could have done.

“I feel very privileged and blessed to have been able to get these opportunities and information that other people don’t know at such a young age,” she added. She will attend the honors college at Pace University in the fall on an academic scholarship. Graham wants to major in environmental science, but said long-term she may pursue law school so that she can become an environmental activist.

While she understands that she’s at an advantage being in New York City, she encourages young people everywhere with a passion for science to seek out resources and opportunities. Teachers helped guide her and she hopes they’ll do the same for other students.

Dr. Claudia Wultsch, a research associate at the museum, who works with endangered species conservation, has been part of SRMP for four years. Recently her work has focused on jaguars in Central America. Wultsch said introducing high school students to the principles of carnivore conservation and guiding them through the research and interpretation of the results allows her to take students through the full process.

“For one year, they are part of my research team,” said Wultsch. “They bring in fresh minds and lots of energy. … They’re trying to decide the next step. The students are interested to continue this kind of career.”

Mariam Abalo-Toga was part of the presentation, “The sounds of science: listening to black holes.” A senior at Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics bound for the University of Maryland, she is inspired to communicate the science she loves to a general audience and get them as excited about science as she is. Her plan is to study astrophysics.

The mentor on Abalo-Toga’s project, Dr. Imre Bartos, an astrophysicist, said high school students are open, so this is a time where they can be exposed to scientific topics and research.

“It’s very important if you want the best kids to be successful scientists to start as early as possible, and high school is really the time,” said Bartos. “There are two important aspects. One is that students may not have the best education in some sciences at their school, and it’s important that we add to that. The other aspect is that kids in science classes are not exposed to research.

“They are exposed to some ideas in the sciences, but nobody really is teaching what research is,” he continued. “Very few people know what research is until they actually do it themselves. This program is particularly great because it gives the opportunity to potential scientists to see what they may be doing if they follow this career path. There is no way you get this from a regular class in high school.”

Bartos said it keeps his communication skills sharp. Explaining new concepts to high school students, helps him be able to present his work to a larger, non-science audience, which is his desire with black holes.

He made an effort to find a particularly useful topic on which the students did their research. All SRMP participants at the natural history museum come twice a week throughout the school year. The students are also learning about the opportunities that are open to them, getting insight into how to advance in an academic environment.

“If you don’t have that at your school and you don’t have it at home, there’s no other way you get to know what steps to take,” said Bartos. “They’ll know better how the system works, which is a huge part.”

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