Scientists for a Summer

Marissa Shields of Metamora works on developing new catalysts to accelerate chemical reactions.

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August 13, 2010

When the Bradley soccer team kicks off its 2010 season this month, Daniel Wang will be watching with particular interest.  Though he’s a self-proclaimed “big sports fan,” he won’t be fixated on the scoreboard as much as the inevitable collisions on the field.  Through Bradley’s BEST internship program, Wang joined a team of OSF Saint Francis researchers this summer who are using Bradley’s soccer players as subjects in a study of the physiological impacts of head injuries.  As the success of his study hinges on an athlete injury, the BEST program is introducing Wang not only to scientific and clinical research skills, but also to ethical considerations with which medical researchers frequently grapple.

“You have to look at it in a positive sense.  This research can ultimately help athletes down the road.  Based on the information gathered from this study, we’re most likely going to be able to diagnose athletes better,” Wang said.

BEST, which stands for “Building Excellent Scientists for Tomorrow,” is an annual outreach effort by Bradley University aimed at putting high school and undergraduate students to work alongside top-level scientific researchers in laboratory settings at Bradley and around the Peoria area.  The ten-week internship program wrapped up its sixth annual iteration August 13, 2010, with participants sharing their research in presentations and poster displays. 

Wang, now a three-year veteran of the program, is just the kind of student BEST organizers target.  He is from the Peoria area, and may be convinced through his work with research professionals at Bradley to bring his expertise back to the region once he completes his education. 

“We want to change the face of science here in Peoria.  Rather than importing talent, why don’t we use our own talent?  Where better to start off than in our own backyard where we have these wonderfully talented students who maybe have never thought about a career in science,” said Dr. Kelly McConnaughay, BEST Program Director and Bradley biology professor.

Program organizers also make efforts to recruit students who belong to demographics that are underrepresented in science-related career fields, and students who, for one reason or another, face a social block when it comes to studying science.  McConnaughey said those efforts are paying off, noting that most of this year’s interns fall into one of those categories.  Once interns are accepted and the program begins, the focus shifts to providing a learning environment that is challenging, yet comfortable.   That’s where undergraduate mentors come into play, bridging the gap between high school and professional participants.  Even if a high school student can’t quite fathom becoming a Ph.D., he or she might easily imagine running laboratory experiments as a university science major.

“Maybe their background isn’t one where they have parents who have gone to college, or a parent who is a scientist, or they don’t know anyone who’s a scientist.  It could be a little off-putting, being stuck with a Ph.D.-level scientist and nobody else, so we found that having the undergraduate students there gives them the opportunity to see themselves progressing step-by-step,” McConnaughay said.

Michelle Haney, a senior biology major at Bradley, served as BEST Program Head Undergraduate Coordinator.  In addition to conducting her own research on antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Haney arranged opportunities for high school students and their near-peers to interact outside the laboratories and attend seminars given by area professionals.  Haney worked closely with Desiree Canon, a student from Peoria Central High School, an experience that showed the Bradley senior the transformative impact the BEST program can have on high school participants.

“She’s grown by leaps and bounds.  Her biology knowledge coming in was very basic, which you would expect, and now she has such a greater understanding for the concepts.  She’s learned how research works and all the work that goes into the results,” Haney said.

Meanwhile, Wang is proof that the BEST program is reaching its goal of keeping students interested in science and engineering-related careers.  He will enter his sophomore year as a pre-med student at the University of Illinois—Chicago this month.  When it comes to soccer, though, he’ll be watching Bradley.