September 2014 by: Victoria Bonebrake 
Photo: Cynthia Cruz and Adam Higgins in the Higgins Laboratory, taken by Victoria Bonebrake 

 

When you tell people you work in a cryopreservation lab it sounds like you are in a science fiction movie. But the students that work under Adam Higgins certainly agree: there is nothing fictitious about the learning they’ve acquired as part of Higgins’ broader impact.

In the Higgins Laboratory, under the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering, a team of students and researchers test the safety of methods for freezing human blood for transfusions. By design the students range in age, experience, and identity. Each student is plugged into an aspect of Higgins larger research and tasked to mentor the students closest to him or her in age and proficiency. By hosting qualified students at every level of experience, Higgins is able to build a chain of mentorship among his student researchers.

During summer when the lab is bustling, it’s common to find Higgins himself, doctoral students, masters students, undergraduate Johnsons Scholars or students of Higgins, and high schoolers from the Summer Experiences in Science and Engineering for Youth (SESEY) or Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering (ASE) programs working side-by-side. “Some of my students, like the ASEs or undergrads I find in my classes, are hand selected,” says Higgins, “while others such as the Johnsons scholars I’m paired with through Skip Rochefort, who heads the Johnsons program and Pre-College Programs.”

Before entering the lab all students, regardless of age and experience, must go through the same biohazard training prior to the start date of their program. While Higgins and the graduate students set the research trajectory, the undergrads and high schoolers serve most often as assistants and are taught skills such as blood cell counting, hemolysis testing, and how to operate microfluidic devices. As they work together to collect and analyze data, Higgins has found that students closest in age and life experience tend to better understand the needs and road bumps associated with being in the less proficient positions. “More senior students gain perspective and skill, but haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be in their mentee’s shoes,” he explains. As he walks around the lab, Higgins himself also tries to remain present as an overarching mentor.

Links to the Community 

The chain of mentorship, however, doesn’t end in the lab: every August the high school students take their training outdoors to 4-H camps for middle school children. At the camps they practice hands-on activities reflective of the basic techniques done in the research lab. “For example,” explains former ASE student Cynthia Cruz, “I got to return to the 4-H camp I attended as a kid, and conducted experiments with fish eggs that simulated the expansion and shrinkage of blood cells every day for a week. In that way, it was like the chain of mentorship got to continue with me, too.” 

It wasn’t until she worked in the Higgins Lab with her mentor Jolynn that Cruz, who is a well-seasoned participant of OSU’s STEM based pre-college programs, decided upon her major of study. Through the meaningful connections with mentors they, “taught me the skills I needed for my internship, but also helped me look at college programs, scholarships, clubs, and made suggestions based on their experiences.” As she begins her first year in pre-chemical engineering at OSU this fall, Cruz feels that she brings with her a support system that sustains her beyond her internship’s end date. 

And for Higgins, bringing students into his lab also presents an opportunity to conduct outreach with historically underrepresented communities of students. Part of his current grant proposal is to include more Latin@ (Latino/Latina) students interested in bioengineering in his lab. Despite entering STEM fields at similar rates as majority white and Asian American students, national surveys show that Latin@ students are retained at much lower rates. Higgins hopes that through active engagement and hands-on learning, he can fuel individual students’ love of bioengineering while giving them context for their academic studies.  “One of the reasons I’m here, as opposed to other types of research institutions, is because of the opportunity OSU presents in mentoring and training young scientists while also doing excellent research,” says Higgins. “Watching the day-to-day of students getting excited about what they’re doing keeps me excited about what I’m doing.” As Cruz described it, she appreciated the authentic lab experience, combined with the energy and excitement presented by her mentor. “I’m a first-generation student,” she explains, “and these camps gave me the opportunity to learn about and feel more comfortable with working in an academic environment.” Cruz was left hungry for more research experiences.

Tips for Involvement

When hosting students with a range of experience, Higgins suggests plugging high school students, whose programs typically span shorter timeframes, directly into current research trajectories.

For more information on hosting ASE interns, visit them at http://www.saturdayacademy.org/ase. Or, for those looking to use ASE or similar programs as a broader impact, feel free to contact OSU’s Pre-College Programs at http://oregonstate.edu/precollege/ early in the impact planning process.