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Boston College Chemists Mix Mentoring and Research to Inspire Young Scientists

P2P project offers high school students hands-on lab experience

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (August 2013) – The Department of Chemistry at Boston College has a long history of offering programs to encourage high school students – particularly young women – to learn more about the discipline, consider potential careers and spend time working in research laboratories.

Biochemistry major Tom Kelly ’14, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jeffery Byers and high school science students Andrew Feng, Cecily Power and Barakah Quader are part of a new summer mentoring and research program in the Chemistry Department.

This summer, Assistant Professors of Chemistry Jeffery Byers and Eranthie Weerapana launched a new initiative to expose high school students to chemistry, and put them at the bench conducting research on a project to synthesize a biodegradable type of plastic from the byproducts of recycled paper.

With a Teaching and Mentoring grant from the University, Byers and Weerapana conceived their “P2P: Paper 2 Plastics” initiative, which closely connects the work of faculty, graduate students, undergraduate mentors with six high school students who share a passion for science.

Across six weeks, the students have been learning about the scientific principles behind P2P, the work chemists do, and potential careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, as well as conducting experiments to render polymers from paper.

“What Eranthie and I wanted to do was to encourage high school students — particularly young women and minorities — to pursue the enthusiasm they have for science,” said Byers. “We thought one of the best ways to do that was to get them into the lab and give them the experience of doing chemistry in a working research lab.”

But the professors wanted the students to have appropriate levels of support. So graduate students in both labs joined the program, mapping out a research agenda and tutoring undergraduate students to serve as mentors not only in the lab, but in a broader discussion about studying a scientific discipline in college and pursuing careers in STEM fields.

Weerapana said throughout her undergraduate and graduate study she was fortunate to have been mentored by a number of women, despite the fact that females hold approximately 30 percent of full-time science and engineering faculty positions in the U.S.

“I always had female mentors and advisors and that’s been very important to me,” said Weerapana. “I think it’s important for students with an interest in the sciences to have the opportunity to see for themselves what the future might hold, and it’s especially important for girls and young women to see they can become researchers or professors.”

From a scientific standpoint, P2P combines the work of Weerapana’s biochemistry lab and the organic/organometallic chemistry of the Byers’ lab. Together, the labs are pursuing a new approach to converting waste paper into plastic. Through a series of biochemical and chemical steps, glucose extracted from used office paper is converted into polylactic acid, a biodegradable polymer with properties similar to petroleum-based products. The goal is to develop a polymer that is highly biodegradable, yet strong enough to be used in everyday products, such as plastic bottles.

Byers said the process would help reduce the paper products waste stream and reduce the harmful environmental impacts of non-biodegradable products.

“The great thing about the project is that in addition to the laboratory experience and learning about science, these students get a chance to learn about the societal impact of science and chemistry and that’s something that I think often gets lost,” said Byers.

Cecily Power, a student at Newton Country Day, agreed.

“I think this project is pretty cool,” said Power, who has an interest in studying biology and chemistry in college. “It’s another way to help change the environment by taking something you no longer have a use for and creating something useful.”

In the lab recently, three of the six high school students were working with their mentor, biochemistry major Tom Kelly ’14, evaluating a procedure to convert glucose into lactide through a chemical reaction sparked by a tin catalyst.

“This has taught us a little bit about a lot of things,” said Barakah Quader, who attends the Windsor School and is interested in studying neuroscience. “The hands-on experience in the lab is pretty sophisticated. We don’t really get that chance in high school. Here we are taking what we are learning and then doing something with it in the lab.”

In addition to Quader and Power, other high school participants included Michelle Ng, of Brighton, a student at Boston Latin School, Amanda Chin, from Lexington High School, Grace Jessiman, from Mount Alvernia High School, and Andrew Feng, from Newton North High School. Biochemistry major Fiona Tamburini ’14 served as an undergraduate mentor.

—Ed Hayward, Office of News & Public Affairs