On a recent afternoon, two researchers were hard at work in a Chemistry Department computer lab. One of the scientists concentrated on the effects of common pesticides on human DNA. Nearby, the other was focused on finding a way to block the Ebola virus from docking with human cells.
Like other researchers around the world, these two scientists dream of unlocking chemical and biological mysteries that will improve the human condition. What makes them different from most other researchers is their age. Adrian McAfee and Luke Arnce are high school seniors who come to PSU on their free time to learn the art and science of research.
Irene Zegar and her husband, James McAfee, have mentored high school students interested in research for more than seven years. Zegar said she and her husband give their time to mentor the young researchers because it is exciting to share their own passion for research.
“It’s a lot of fun for me and a lot of fun for the student,” Zegar said. “I’m excited because I see the excitement on their faces (when they make a discovery) and I want to continue to promote that as much as I can.”
Zegar said that not all of the students she and her husband mentor go on to pursue careers in medicine or chemistry, but their research experience helps them nonetheless.
“It makes them think on a higher level,” Zegar said. “It’s very valuable to do such a sophisticated type of work because most high school students and even undergraduate students don’t get exposed to this.”
Zegar said the research experience also gets the notice of top universities when the students apply.
“A lot of top universities require high school students to do research,” Zegar said. “So this puts the students (who have this experience) in a higher position in the application pool with many universities.”
Both Adrian McAfee, a senior at Pittsburg High School, and Luke Arnce, a senior at Carl Junction High School, say they hope to enter pre-med programs when they go to college.
“Just learning more each day and seeing the results is exciting,” McAfee said. “(It’s great) when you can see something has the potential to have an effect in the actual world.”
Arnce said he expects to build on his experiences at Pitt State.
“It’s definitely going to help prepare me for different types of research. In fact, we’ll probably be using the same methods and protocols that we’re using here at whatever university I go to, so I’ll have a head start on the programs and the methods that we’ll be using,” Arnce said.
Zegar said she and her husband are eager to mentor even more high school students in the future.
“Ultimately, I would like to make this research experience available to a broader pool of high school students,” Zegar said, noting that over her 17-year career at Pittsburg State, she and her husband have seen many of the college students they have taught, as well as the high school students they have mentored, go on to rewarding careers.
“Our students go places,” Zegar said. “In chemistry, our students go to top medical schools and top graduate schools. We send students to summer research programs at Harvard, Vanderbilt and other top universities around the country. We open doors for them.”