August 21, 2018

Collecting data while collecting a paycheck

LOWELL — On a stifling August day, 18-year-old Sophia Manukian finds refuge from the heat in a UMass Lowell chemistry lab.

She’s there to finish up some problems on her laptop: statistical analysis of the speed at which a protein refolds, she says. But this isn’t a chemistry class; Manukian is conducting research on a muscle protein called Titin under the direction of associate chemistry Professor Matthew Gage, and she’s getting paid for it.

Manukian is one of nine high school-age interns conducting biological research at UMass Lowell this summer under the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MSLC) high school apprenticeship challenge.

The center, a state-wide science innovation, education and research investment agency, funds paid internships for students at companies and universities throughout the state.

The interns work 40 hours per week for six weeks over the summer, and present their research at the end of the program.

“They could be working on proteins, to sampling Lowell waterways to look at metals and other things in the water, to doing some computer programming related to life sciences data. So it runs a gamut of different research that they’re doing,” says Susan Pryputniewicz, who coordinated the MLSC program at UMass Lowell.

Three high school interns work in Gage’s lab alongside PhD students, each independently responsible for a facet of research on the Titin muscle protein.

“They’re collecting the data, they’re setting up the experiments, and then working with Colleen Kelly (a PhD student) to actually analyze the data and understand what it means,” Gage says, and the students have had opportunities beyond the Lowell lab too, when Manukian’s research on the protein’s unfolding rate was presented at a national conference in Boston.

“They’ve had the opportunity to see more than what its like to be at the bench, but actually a lot more of what its like to be a scientist,” Gage says.

Jahnvi Patel, 19, recently graduated from Lowell high school. Her work at the lab focuses on expressing and purifying the protein for binding studies.

“At first, it was a little overwhelming because you do so much at the same time, but it’s interesting to finally be able to apply all the science you learned in school. Because we didn’t necessarily get to do that at my high school,” Patel said.

With the program wrapping up soon, the interns prepare to make their independent presentations on the research they’ve conducted, and a few are getting ready to head to college. All of Gage’s interns are looking forward to careers in science and research.

“The earlier we open up the students eyes to the opportunities which provides how exciting it is, how difficult it can be, I think it provides an opportunity that increases the livelihood that they’re gonna consider that as a career option. We need to have good, hardworking scientists,” Gage says.

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