Summer of Discovery Gives Students Head Start in Sciences

July 30, 2018

This summer — weeks before their first-ever college class — 14 new Bucknell students are at work in the lab. Side-by-side with faculty and student mentors, they're exploring their interests in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields; laying the groundwork for a future in research; and learning more about the place they'll call home for the next four years.

Coming to Bucknell from around the country, these students are the latest members of Bucknell's invitational STEM Scholars Program, a National Science Foundation-backed effort that provides each with housing and a living stipend supporting their five-week introductory research experience.

Each of the incoming students is paired with a faculty adviser on a research project that introduces them to lab work and the opportunities for independent scholarship at Bucknell.

Caché Harris '22, a Charles T. Bauer Scholar from Baltimore who plans to major in neuroscience, is working in the lab of Professor Kevin Myers, psychology. She's assisting Megan Summers '19, a former STEM Scholar who's now pursuing an honors thesis on the preferences for sugary and fatty flavors in lab rats.

"The STEM mentors rock," Harris said, "and Professor Myers is so open about everything. I'm always welcome to ask questions. Coming in I was kind of scared because I had never done research before, but he made my transition really easy. I thought that working in a lab would be very strict, but in here it's very open and easygoing. It's always fun, but I'm also learning a lot."

The work that the students are doing is real. Macy Albaitis '22, a women's rowing standout from Grand Rapids, Mich., who plans to major in animal behavior, has already created "a chemical compound that hasn't been made before" in the lab of Professor HasanArslan, chemistry. With Arslan and chemistry major Gavin Lindsay '21, she's trying to create a substance that will change color in response to an electric current.

"I'm experiencing new techniques in this lab that I never did in high school, and using equipment that I wouldn't be able to use anywhere else," she said. "Research is really fun, and different from a classroom environment. You're able to use the skills that you have to make new discoveries. Like the new compound — it's really cool to get to say that I've made something that no one else has made."

This serious scholarship is broken up with opportunities for exploring the area around Bucknell, introducing students to the region and easing the transition to college life. Half-day excursions saw the incoming students riding wooden coasters at Knoebels Amusement Resort, spelunking in Woodward Cave and kayaking down the Susquehanna River to Bucknell's boat launch, just off campus.

"The kayak trip was really fun," Albaitis said. "I'm going to be on the rowing team, so it was really cool to get out on the Susquehanna before I start practicing on it every day.

"It was also really fun because I was hanging out with the other animal behavior student, Kailyn. It was good to make a connection with someone else in my major."

Before they start classes, the STEM Scholars Program allows the incoming students to dip their toes into their fields of interest without the added pressure of a grade. Jaden Lee '22, an undeclared engineering major and Arts Merit Scholar and Dean's Scholarship recipient from Red Lion, Pa., is working with biomedical engineering major Gari Eberly '21 — a STEM Scholar from last summer's cohort — and Professor Donna Ebenstein on a methods development project concerned with testing the mechanical properties of soft biomaterials. He said the program is helping him determine which aspect of engineering he wants to explore.

"If I have any questions, I can just ask Professor Ebenstein or Gari — I like the close contact we have," Lee said. "I like that it's not very high stakes right now. I'm not getting a grade on it, so I feel more comfortable. It's more like they are trying to integrate me into the research process and not put pressure on me."

The STEM Scholars Program also leaves time for social activities that allow students to bond before their classes begin in the fall, including a kick-off team-building exercise at the Forrest D. Brown Conference Center at Cowan and weekly ice cream socials where the scholars can mingle with other students spending the summer on campus doing research. These activities help them feel like part of a community and form connections that the program's organizers believe will help them stick with and succeed in their challenging majors.

"I've already made friends here — my roommate and all the girls on the second floor," said Albaitis. "We have movie nights, just hang out and talk, and it's been really fun. I come from Michigan, so there won't be many people here I know, and it's helped me make friends. I hope I'll be able to stay in touch with them during the school year."

"Everybody here is focused on different disciplines," added Lee. "I'm doing something that I feel is significant, and the other scholars are doing other things that are also significant, and in that way we're like peers — higher-level peers. I feel very blessed to have this very unique opportunity that most people do not get in their first year of college."

The STEM Scholars summer program concludes at the end of July, giving students an opportunity to see their families and friends before New Student Orientation begins Aug.15. But their STEM Scholars experience does not end there. The program will support the students in pursuing an additional, full-summer research experience in a future year, as well as provide opportunities to present their work and possibly mentor new classes of scholars.

"This program has made me so happy," Lee said. "I've never had an experience like this before. I know now how supportive Bucknell is of student research, because it's a smaller university where students can make more connections with their professors, and because of all the great equipment and resources it has. I'm really excited to go into my first year knowing all that it has to offer."