Mentoring Program Graduates Teen Scientists

Astrophysics, DNA sequencing and molecular evolution were among the topics explored by 55 New York City high school students who recently concluded a two-year after-school program at the American Museum of Natural History. The teens gave their final presentations last week during a graduation ceremony and the evening was anything but the typical high school science fair.

Now in its fourth year, the Science Research Mentoring Program, recruits underrepresented minorities from New York City public and private schools. Oscar Pineda, a biologist who runs the program, said students take a year's worth of classes after school at the museum, and then compete for the chance to spend another year working with research scientists.

Heba Shaaban, a junior at the Al-Noor School in Brooklyn, worked with another student and one of the museum's research scientists on a project called, "An Insight into the Functional Annotation of Kaupichthys hyproroides." In plain English, they tried to figure out which species was most closely related to a particular type of Moray eel.

"The eel is not very appealing fish and nobody really wants to work with it," said Shaaban, standing in front of a poster with pictures of the eel and various charts. But, she explained "it's very important in population genetics if something goes wrong with the population, you want to make sure that you have a data set to refer back to to see what went wrong."

After comparing protein sequences for the eel to those on a national server with the database for every species on the planet, she said they discovered the eel had more in common with a zebrafish than any other creature.

Shaaban was among three students in the program who won a $30,000 college scholarship for her work. She doesn't know where she will go to college yet, because she is still a junior, but she said she will definitely pursue science.

Anupam Kumar, a senior at the NEST+M school.

Anupam Kumar, a 17-year-old senior at the NEST+M High School, is another scholarship winner. He will be going to University of Texas at Dallas. "I was very honored that the institution chose me for the scholarship," he said.

Kumar looked at the evolutionary history of carpenter ants from the Pacific region which are "morphologically different" from other ants, indicating that they are the result of hybridization.

"It's like the donkey and the horse meeting to create a mule," he explained. "How we represent the evolutionary tree is what our project is about, and how to do that optimally, how to represent the truth or at least hypothesize about the truth is what our goal is."

He said he is interested in studying bioengineering and oncology.

Maimuna Hossain, a senior at the Brooklyn Latin School.

Maimuna Hossain, an 18-year-old senior at the Brooklyn Latin School, studied astrophysics during her two years at the museum and will use her $30,000 scholarship when she attends Columbia University in September. Her project was about the conditions for planet formation. No telescopes were involved. She had to calculate kinetic energy in vortices, swirling areas around new stars where planets can be created from dust, entirely through computer simulations.

"I actually enjoyed it a lot," she said. "In my school, my favorite classes are math and physics and that's why I became interested in the program, and I was a little bit disappointed that we weren't going to do observational astronomy. But we got to do a lot of math and we got to speculate a lot and it felt like a real research rather than just looking at the stars, so I was very happy with the way it worked out."

Other students studied the taxonomy of slow Lorises, and some looked at bones from the museum's collection. Ilana Weinstein, a junior at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, and Aishwerya Sharma, who is graduating from Columbia Prep, wore cat ears to symbolize their project: the biodiversity of mountain lions.

All of the students presented their work in front of about 200 family members last week. One proud mother said she didn't really understand her daughter's biology project, but she was interested because her daughter was so enthusiastic.

Paleontologist Michael Novacek, the museum's senior vice president and provost of science, gave a short speech before the student presentations. As he read off the names of their projects, which included "tracing mitochondrial ancestries" and "DNA barcoding of aquatic invertebrates," he paused and said, "You're in high school!"

Novacek also gave the teens some words of wisdom from the field. He told them scientists often have to endure periods of boredom before a big discovery, but that they should appreciate the time it gives them to think. He recalled his many visits to the Gobi desert to hunt for dinosaur bones, and his discovery of the first dinosaur embryo from that region and a skeleton of a nesting dinosaur a pile of eggs. These "Ah-hah moments" are what scientists live for.

"Even if you have only one, it will keep you going," he said.