SRU professor’s research grant helps two high school students

Students in a lab being supervized by a professor

From left, New Castle Area High School students Morgan Daily and Jade Bodie work in the chemistry lab at Slippery Rock University under the direction of Don Zapien, SRU professor of chemistry. Zapien helped secure a grant from the American Chemical Society that provides research opportunities for students from economically disadvantaged high schools.

July 24, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Two high school students will be conducting scientific research this summer at Slippery Rock University. It's an opportunity that's coveted by college students interested in graduate school and extremely rare for teenagers who have yet to fill out their first college application.

Morgan Daily and Jade Bodie, both juniors at New Castle Area High School, are spending 40 hours a week this summer in the SRU chemistry lab conducting research thanks to a Project SEED grant secured by SRU from the American Chemical Society. Program organizers hope that the experience will increase the students’ knowledge and enhance their opportunities for admission to one of the top research institutions in the country.

With SEED fellowship recipients more likely to have schools such as Harvard or MIT high on their short list of college choices, why would an SRU professor apply for the grant and volunteer his entire summer to help two students who could go to another school?

"I am in a position to make a difference and, darn it, I'm going to do it ... that's why," said Don Zapien, SRU professor of chemistry, who applied for the grant and is mentoring Bodie and Daily for eight weeks and a total of 320 hours. "I don't know how else to say it. You just do it."

There are nearly 200 high school students working in either academic or industry laboratories this year through Project SEED, established in 1968 to help students from economically disadvantaged high schools expand their education and career outlook in the chemistry field.

"If you are in a position to do it, then it's best to do it," said Zapien, who contacted NCAHS while applying for the grant before administrators there identified Bodie and Daily as potential recipients. "Not everyone is in a position to do it, but I have a laboratory, I've got projects, I've got funding and there's a high school down the road that has many kids who can't afford to do it."

Two Project SEED grants, $2,500 from the ACS national office and a matching grant of $3,140 from the ACS Pittsburgh Section, pays Bodie and Daily a stipend and covers their lunches and travel expenses to and from Slippery Rock. They would otherwise be working summer jobs, but the students are instead studying the electron transfer properties of ferritin, a protein that stores iron in cells.

When Bodie and Daily were asked by their chemistry teacher at NCAHS, Russ Carley, about accepting the fellowship, the pair didn't hesitate.

"It was just, 'Yeah, sure, let's go for it,'" said Bodie, who met the program requirements of having at least one year of chemistry in high school. "Then we found out (the research is) much higher than what we usually do. You didn't go into it thinking, 'I'm going to learn this.' You don't know (what you're going to learn). It's been mentally challenging because you'll learn something and then you'll have to apply it with Dr. Zapien and then by yourself."

Bodie and Daily are performing techniques used by molecular biologists and biochemists to harvest bacteria, in which ferritin is synthesized, purified and isolated. They then analyze the protein using electrochemical methods to find out how ferritin maintains the proper levels of iron which is a critically important part of human health, as toxic levels of iron could lead to diseases such as Alzheimer's.

"They will never get this type of research experience in high school and you wouldn't do this in undergraduate classes either," Zapien said. "This type of research is outside the classroom. Everybody can get A's but which students are going to hit the ground running doing research when they get to college as undergraduates? If you can place a student in a setting like this, they get to say, 'Hey, I can do this!'"

Although they are conducting steps to evaluate protein purity, like "polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis," what do Bodie and Daily tell their friends and family they are doing at SRU all summer?

"Science," Daily said in synchronization with Bodie, before elaborating. "We are seeing how pure our protein is. It's a lot equations and measuring certain things. It's a good opportunity and I always wanted to work in a lab or do a science internship. It means a lot and this will look good for college applications."

Daily is an aspiring neuroscientist who wants to study at the University of Pittsburgh, while Bodie would like to become an aerospace engineer and study at MIT.

As part of the Project SEED agreement, Zapien also provides college counseling in addition to lab instruction. He compares Project SEED to that of developing Olympic athletes.

"We are training the best and the brightest kids who never thought they could (achieve success)," Zapien said. "It's like going off the highways and the byways and finding a (future) Olympic star who has never competed in the pool or on the track and then you give them that opportunity. The intelligence, the talents, the motivation - they came in with it. I just provide the opportunity, the lab experience and the supplies."

To Zapien's credit, however, his job is to identify the students' specific talents and cultivate them by providing the right experiments and questions that will prove or disprove the research hypotheses.

While the eight-week program ends Aug. 8, Bodie and Daily could potentially be coauthors with Zapien if their research is published. They are also eligible to apply for a competitive scholarship through Project SEED worth $5,000.

"Their goals become my goals," Zapien said. "Which means if they want to go to MIT, I have to find a way to get them there. This is not a science fair project."

Zapien's goals are also those of SRU - to serve the public good.

"The University is a center for higher learning, which means it is part of the University's goal to expand the career goals of everyone, not only their own students. A faculty member is in a grand position to facilitate that. As faculty, we are arms of the University."

And because Zapien reached out with open arms, two high school students will have the chance to reach further in their careers than they ever imagined.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 | justin.zackal@sru.edu