Research Labs Offer High School Students Competitive Advantage in College Admission

It's no secret that college students conduct an immense amount of research, but some students who are still in high school are wanting in on the action. They are turning to university and corporate research labs to boost their resumes and help them decide on their major before they even get to college.

The initiative they show and the experience they get can be a boon for helping them get accepted to the college of their choice, said Danny Easley, assistant director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech. "If they have some meaningful research experience, it shows us that the student has a real passion for learning and discovery, which is what we're looking for when we are accepting students into our freshman class."

One such student is incoming freshman and metro Atlanta native Amanda Dugan. When Dugan enrolled in the Rockdale County Magnet School for Science and Technology she planned on being an English teacher, but wanted to challenge herself with tough science classes. After her first day in the lab she was hooked and ended up spending two years researching the mechanisms of cholera infections, collaborating with Rockdale Hospital and a researcher at Texas Tech University.

With college admissions becoming more competitive every year, students have to work hard to set themselves apart from the crowd. "It's so competitive now that you have to show that you do something that is on your own," said Dugan. "Research set me apart from students who didn't have that background."

Cholera is an acute intestinal infection found mostly in countries without advanced water and sanitation systems. Although rarely fatal in industrialized countries, it's much more of a problem in developing countries, where the bacterial illness can kill within hours if left untreated. The bacterium that causes the disease has its own defense mechanism against antibiotics, a pump that pushes antibiotics out of the cell.

"We studied how this pump works, looking for a way to shut it off," she said.

Dugan was listed as first author for an abstract that was published with the American Society of Microbiology and presented it in a poster format at the group's 2003 General Meeting in Washington D.C. The research team plans to submit the full paper to a scientific journal in a few months.

This summer, when many of her friends are celebrating their escape from high school, Dugan is quietly working in the lab again, this time at Georgia Tech as part of the Aquatic Chemical Ecology program, a National Science Foundation sponsored research program for undergradates. Her instructor, Associate Professor of Biology Patricia Sobecky, is also hosting three other high school students and a teacher as part of a joint project between Tech's Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning and the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing. Sobecky is one of three Tech professors participating in the project this summer.

Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Professor Martial Taillefert is teaching students to test local bodies of water for metals and other substances, while Jane Ammons, associate dean of the College of Engineering, has her students working on solutions for recycling dead computers and electronics in a way that's both environmentally and financially sound. Ammons' students will present their findings to the state's Computer Equipment and Recycling Council next month.

"Having students perform research on a college level while they're still in high school gives them a chance to test themselves in a real lab environment," said Ammons.

The university gets something out of it too, said Easley. "When a student comes to campus, interacts with the professor and gets hands-on working experience, it's always going to be an advantage to us in the admissions office in terms of getting that student to apply to Georgia Tech," said Easley. "It's really an advantage to the student as well because they get a better feel for GA Tech. I think it works really well on both ends."

Tech has no shortage of incoming freshmen who've performed research in one way or another before arriving on campus. Liz Saltmarsh, from North Pole, Alaska studied the phenomenon of quicksand with Georgia Tech Civil Engineering Professor Carlos Santamarina as part of the NASA Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program.

James Waring, who's coming to Tech this fall from Yorktown, Va., filed a patent for infrared imaging headgear while working at NASA Langley Research Center.

Audrey Southard, from Lawrence, Kan., spent time mapping the genome of a cotton rat at Virion Systems, Inc. The company, Southard said, believes the work will help researchers find ways to combat human respiratory diseases since the rat seems to respond to disease in many of the same ways that humans do.

In addition to boosting a college resume, working in a lab helped the students with their own high school work.

"Just being in a lab helped me with my science classes," said Southard. "When I came back and took my advanced placement chemistry course, it was easier for me. Working in the lab gave me the feeling that I don't just want to learn the concepts, I also want to understand how things work."