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Future scientists and engineers in training

Written by Lauren Horn, project implementation coordinator, Center for STEM Education

Wenzheng Yu spends long days in a Northeastern University chemical engineering laboratory, investigating an electro-active chemical called pyocyanin, a molecule produced by many strains in a family of bacteria.

Yu speaks eloquently about the importance of his research, which allows doctors to easily and accurately detect the presence of bacteria in patients.

And he is only a high school student.

Yu, a rising senior year at Quincy High School, is one of more than two dozen students in Northeastern’s Young Scholars Program, which offers future scientists and engineers in Boston-area high schools paid research positions in university labs.

Many students will work with faculty affiliated with Northeastern’s Bernard M. Gordon Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems (Gordon CenSSIS); the Center for High Rate Nanomanufacturing (CHN); and the ALERT (Awareness and Localization of Explosives-Related Threats) Center. All of the students will have the chance to participate in seminars on career exploration and take field trips to a variety of corporate and government sites to see and speak with engineers in action.

Yu works in the lab of chemical engineering assistant professor Edgar Goluch. “Our group’s research is much more extensive than labs conducted at my school,” Yu said of his lab work. “I enjoy working in my lab environment. I was exposed to many sophisticated instruments from integrated Palladium Hydride reference electrodes to micropipette.”

The Young Scholars Program places pairs of students in 13 campus research labs. Often, the lab teams also include K–12 educators and community college faculty who participate in the Research Experiences for Teachers program. Both programs are coordinated by Claire Duggan of Northeastern’s Center for STEM Education and funded by the Linde Family Foundation and other government and corporate donors.

Yu stressed the role of Northeastern graduate students in facilitating his learning experience, noting that university students provide the Young Scholars with support and research context.

Goluch said his lab benefits from the work of the budding scientists in the program. “My graduate students and I have learned quite a lot from the scholars,” he said. “The grad students learn how to communicate about their research, which is an incredibly important skill.”

“I believe that getting students excited about engineering at a young age is vital to increasing the number of students graduating with STEM degrees in the U.S and improving the overall technological literacy of our population,” he explained. “So few people know what researchers and professors actually do. This program is a great way to educate students about how things we see and use every day are often discovered or invented.”