This level of science was the natural step for Clare—he’s attended summer programs at the DNA Learning Center for the past four years.
“I love DNA,” remarked Madeline Allnatt, who came to the facility from Los Angeles exclusively for the program. “I love learning about genetics and I ultimately want to be a cancer researcher when I am older.”
Yet producing researchers wasn’t the initial intent behind the DNA Learning Center, said Founder and Executive Director Dave Micklos: “It’s great if they do [go into research], but I think we’ve always been more interested in generally helping kids to understand something about themselves and the world that they live in. Increasingly, we understand about ourselves and about the living things around us by looking at their genes.”
The DNA Learning Center was founded to educate science teachers, but expanded its purview to helping schools enrich their genetics curricula and offering summer programs for students. The Center houses a genetics museum with interactive exhibits and video presentations, which initially brought Nadine Smith, from Limerick, Ireland, to the center. One year later, she was in the one-week class, called DNA Science, with Clare and the other young scientists.
“Even in two and a half days, I’ve learned so much. This amount of detail in genetics isn’t on our curriculum in Ireland, so I’m having an opportunity to get an insight into higher work here,” she explained with a wide smile.
Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy facility in Upton, is another Long Island science institution. Their high school research program hosts 32 students, each engaged in their own six-week-long research project in one of Brookhaven’s 13 departments.
Education Programs Administrator Scott Bronson said students are placed based on their strengths and interests. He first met Gourav Khadge, 16, of Bellport High School, at the Department of Energy Science Bowl and encouraged him to apply to the program.
In late July, Khadge in a tiny cubicle and using an event simulator, was modeling collisions of particles for a project which could reveal the workings of the universe.
“There’s so much we don’t actually know,” he mused. “In here [as opposed to at school], you’re actually doing things to advance civilization, knowledge.”
In the Nonproliferation and National Security Department, Jimmy Ye, 17, cradled a plastic-encased cadmium zinc telluride crystal, the heart of a radiation detector. Within it, there are tellurium occlusions, or defects within the crystalline structure. An infrared camera is used to image them.
“Basically, we’re trying to figure out if there’s a correlation between the amount of defect in the crystal and how well the radiation detector performs,” he explained.
Ye, who hopes to go into nuclear engineering, couldn’t do this type of work in his high school, Sachem East.
The National Synchatron Light Source (NSLS), known as the beamline, is one of Brookhaven’s major installations. The NSLS accelerates stationary charged particles in a circular pathway nearly to the speed of light to produce intense light, which is used to view and image specimens. Absorption spectroscopy can be performed on a protein crystal—a process that records the absorption of light wavelengths to monitor bonding changes caused by the crystal’s exposure to x-ray beams when imaged.
This specific use of the beamline is being perfected for scientists by Michael Skinner, 16, of Riverhead High School. He was writing programs in Java that will help beamline users with their decision-making by finding the best angle for performing spectroscopy on a crystal for the most accurate results. His work has tremendous implications for users investigating protein structures, explained his adviser, Dr. Allen Orville.
Skinner’s contributions have already been acknowledged by biochemists—who used his program and named him as a co-author on their paper—extremely rare for someone his age, said Orville.
The teen enjoys writing code and plans to study programming in college, he said during a break from his computer. He, too, recognizes the importance of his work.
“It’s better than what I was going to do [this past summer],” said Skinner. “At least this is helping somebody.”