Summer program prepares innovative STEM students for grad school
Students toured the Lewes campus with grad student Ed Hale.
Students met with Bill Byam, director of marine operations.
STEM students embark on a dolphin-watching cruise.


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9:44 a.m., Aug. 2, 2010----For Morgan State University rising senior Carlos Murray, attending graduate school was nothing more than a faint idea. Applying for a provisional patent on an invention he helped create was even further from his mind -- not even something he had considered. That all changed after the computer science major participated in the 2010 Educational Advancement Alliance/University of Delaware Graduate Preparatory Program.

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“I had never really discovered the desire that I have for research until I went through this program,” he said, explaining that his sights are now set on graduate school. “Now I understand what research really is.”

Murray was one of 26 participants in the four-week summer program, which is in its second year and is aimed at giving students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other environments the tools they need to apply for and be successful in graduate school.

The program, which was held June 27-July 23 on the University of Delaware campus, is funded by a $213,000 grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Educational Advancement Alliance (EAA). EAA is a nonprofit organization that provides programs to supplement and enrich the educational environment and experiences of students in the School District of Philadelphia and beyond. The organization's focus areas are science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“The program design focuses on creating an immersion situation that is similar to the experiences that a first-year master's student might have -- both with class structure and outside class activities -- so that when participants get to grad school they know more of what to expect,” said Michael Vaughan, senior assistant dean in UD's College of Engineering and program principal investigator.

Organized by the UD College of Engineering, the program put students through a rigorous schedule. They took courses in calculus and chemistry and biochemistry, as well as modules in graduate prep, technical writing, professional etiquette, and career exploration.

They also participated in STEM research team projects, which culminated in their producing PowerPoint presentations and writing research proposals articulating what they had learned.

A deep-sea invention

It was through the team project that Carlos Murray and his collaborators, biology majors Brianna Hayes, a rising junior at Lincoln University in Missouri, and Danielle Johnson, a rising sophomore at Howard University, found their names on a provisional patent.

The group's topic was hydrothermal vents, and it ignited their imaginations. They realized that the chemical energy of the deep-sea geysers' super hot, mineral-rich water could be harnessed to power research on the gushers.

At the urging of Prof. Karl Booksh, who taught the chemistry and biochemistry course module, the group determined a way to use the vents' chemical reactions much like a battery by placing electrodes inside and near the fissures.

“There's so much interest in understanding these vents, and my experience with them is that they're limited by long-term studies,” said Booksh, who has worked on deep-sea vents before and explained that the size and weight of power sources being used now is a real limitation for researchers.

The new source of power would give scientists a way to put sensors at the vents for long periods of time, allowing them to study changes in the unique deep-sea ecosystem that thrives there.

Booksh worked with UD's Technology Transfer Center in the Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships to prepare the patent documents. In addition to Booksh and the students, they include three other project collaborators from UD: George Luther, Maxwell P. and Mildred H. Harrington Professor of Marine Studies, and Yoon-Chang Yin and Nicola Menegazzo, researchers in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Sending congratulations to the students after hearing the news was Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), whose annual Fattah Conference on Higher Education in Philadelphia is organized by EAA and attended by many of the students in the UD summer program.

“I've always recognized the exceptional talent of these young people and said that what we need to do is expose them to stimulating situations like this,” Fattah said. “This is an extraordinary example of what can follow.”

Sky is the limit

While unanticipated, the patent served to reinforce something the program was intended to do: provide the students with broader perspectives on what their futures could hold.

A weekend retreat to the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment's Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes, for example, provided program overviews and highlighted the many career paths available to STEM students beyond traditional careers.

In a retreat module planned by Charles Epifanio, interim director of the School of Marine Science and Policy, students toured UD's 146-foot research vessel Hugh R. Sharp, learned all about the campus' Global Visualization Lab, heard career advice from faculty members, and participated in a dolphin-watching cruise.

Other activities throughout the four weeks included touring the Delaware Biotechnology Institute and participating in an inspirational workshop on developing and attitude of success in higher education and life.

Listening to the students, it was clear the program had them pointed in the right direction.

“I really appreciate having this opportunity because it made me think of other things to do than just med school and dental school,” said Breaunnah Bloomer, a Howard University rising sophomore. “It was more than just an educational experience. It was a life experience, I think for all of us.”

Vaughan emphasizes that successfully implementing a program like this requires much collaboration and coordination. It is a multidisciplinary STEM-based effort, with contributions by three UD colleges -- Arts and Sciences; Earth, Ocean, and Environment; and Engineering -- as well as the McNair Program.

In addition, over 10 campus STEM departments participated in the program seminar series to brief the program participants on graduate-level opportunities within their various disciplines.

Article by Elizabeth Boyle
Photos by Lisa Tossey