They look like scientists in their white coats, working in the Roskamp Institute’s lab using microscopes and high-tech research equipment.
But they’re high school students doing genetic research just like the adults working alongside.
It’s probably the best hands-on learning experience in the world for teens who hope to major in fields like chemical engineering and organic chemistry when they go to college, says James Humphrey, chief operating officer at Roskamp.
“They are the cream of the crop,” he said.
Two Southeast High School students and one from Pine View School in Sarasota spend five to six hours a week at the institute in a new program designed to instill the love of scientific research at an early age.
Their presence at the nonprofit research facility, which specializes in Alzheimer research and neurodegenerative diseases, is an effort to bridge the gap between the skills needed by the biotechnical industry and the skills students have entering the workforce.
“If you can catch them at the junior or senior level and get them enthusiastic about science, you have a chance,” Humphrey said. “This is technology they wouldn’t see until graduate school. We are hoping they’ll remember us and come back here for their Ph.D.”
That’s an option William “Mack” Asselstine, an 18-year-old Pine View senior, and Southeast High students Dimitri Nikitopoulos, a 16-year-old junior, and Maximilian “Max” Staebler, a 17-year-old senior, are considering.
Mack started working at Roskamp in March; Dimitri and Max started in July. All three have college, building their resumes and careers in science on their minds.
“With the experience I’ve gotten, I can go into college feeling much more confident,” Mack said.
Colleges get hundreds of applications from students all with 4.0 averages, Humphrey said. “So they’ll say, ‘What else have you done?’ This could be the difference.”
In a recent interview Max had with Harvard officials, he found out just how impressive his credentials are with the Roskamp tenure.
“They said they had never seen anything like it on a resume before,” Max said.
Mack’s first choice to further his education is the University of Pennsylvania where he wants to study chemical engineering. Max wants to attend Duke with a double-major in biomedical engineering and chemical engineering. Dimitri is hoping to go to college in Boston and major in biomedical engineering.
Dimitri and Max recently completed a genetics project in cooperation with Roskamp, based on an idea from their biology class at Southeast. It involves harvesting spider silk via goat’s milk.
“Our teacher said it is the coolest example of genetic engineering,” Max said.
Their project investigated practical applications for spider silk and ways it can be mass-produced. The super strong polymer might have uses in the military as a body armor or in the fishing industry as fishing line or in construction design as bridge supports. The silk could be useful if scientists could produce it in large quantities, they said.
The teens studied the research being done by a Wyoming scientist who is at the forefront of spider silk research, and they held a two-hour Skype interview with him.
Along with two other Southeast students, their findings won them the Technology Student Association state competition in Orlando last spring. In nationals, they received third place in the biotechnology design division in Texas.
Ghania Ait-Ghezala, a geneticist at Roskamp, read their manuscript and was pleasantly surprised.
“I didn’t expect the depth in genetics I saw from high school students,” she said.
All the students believe their work experience at Roskamp is invaluable.
“This puts us light years ahead,” Mack said. He had expected the lab work to be more high-pressure and was glad to discover it wasn’t as stressful as he thought.
Max said his Roskamp experience has taught him to be more patient.
“You can get lost in the individual experiments and lose the big picture,” he said.
To cover the liability issue of having the teens in the lab, Manatee School District agreed to provide insurance coverage.
Five other area high school students have applied to work at Roskamp and Humphrey hopes to bring in at least two or three more. He asks for a six-month commitment from students, who are trained just like beginning employees at the institute.
The energy and enthusiasm of the students have created a great synergy at the institute, Humphrey said.
And even if the three decide to work at other research facilities after college, Humphrey said they will still be a part of the scientific community and always welcome at Roskamp.
“They are still considered family to us,” he said. “That’s what science is all about: networking and building a collaborative community.”