Mentors model academic pathway

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Johns Hopkins Nano-Bio Magazine and was written by Colin Paul, a third-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in the Konstantopoulos lab. He invites anyone with questions about or interest in the Incentive Mentoring Program to contact him at colin.paul@incentivementoringprogram.org.

When I was in high school, I had an inspiring chemistry teacher. He was funny, he rewarded hard work, and he let us light salt fires in paths around the soapstone lab benches in his classroom. He stayed after school to help my twin brother and me build a “ChemE Car” that used a chemical reaction to stop after a given distance, and we placed second in a competition for local high schools held by the University of Tulsa. He made the subject interesting, and his passion for it was contagious.

Charli

Charli Dawidczyk mentors Baltimore high school students. Photo by Mary Spiro

Before taking his class, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study in college. But as the year progressed, his mentorship helped me decide to pursue chemical engineering, and I’m still doing that as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University.

As a scientist, I hope I can inspire others to consider a career in science. Mentorship is particularly important to underrepresented groups in the sciences, such as minorities or women. It’s so important that the National Institutes of Health supports science education and outreach through its Office of Science  Education, and the National Science Foundation has made it a goal “to expand efforts to increase participation from underrepresented groups and diverse institutions throughout the United States in all NSF activities and programs.”

Johns Hopkins University is also increasingly leading efforts to improve Baltimore communities. In an editorial published in the magazine of the School of Advanced International Studies, Hopkins president Ron Daniels stated the need for Hopkins to help revitalize Baltimore and outlined some of the initiatives to do so.

Faculty, staff, and trainees at Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) are challenged to become more involved in mentoring pre-college students. Recently, INBT partnered with the Incentive Mentoring Program (IMP) to hold a “Science Day” for students at the Academy for College and Career Exploration (ACCE), a Baltimore high school near the Hopkins Homewood campus. IMP, founded in 2004 by Hopkins biomedical engineering graduate Sarah Hemminger, pairs mentors with underperforming Baltimore city high school students who were at risk of not graduating. The program has grown to incorporate several hundred volunteers from the East Baltimore and Homewood Hopkins campuses.

Colin Paul, center, looks on as high schoolers us liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. Photo by Mary Spiro.

Colin Paul, center, looks on as high schoolers us liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. Photo by Mary Spiro.

IMP provides comprehensive mentoring and tutoring to enrolled students, offering educational, legal, and career support to the students and their families. IMP is not merely a tutoring program in which volunteers help students with homework. Instead, it provides students with the social support they may otherwise lack. Teams of five to six mentors are assigned to each student, and these mentors coalesce into an extended family around the student, many of whom come from environments where even graduating from high school is an obstacle. So far, all of the students enrolled in IMP have earned their high school diplomas or equivalent degree.

As IMP grew, students from the laboratories of INBT-affiliated faculty members Peter Searson, Konstantinos Konstantopoulos, Hai-Quan Mao, Justin Hanes, and Andre Levchenko started to get involved. INBT sought to unite the groups for an event to encourage science education among the IMP students. The idea to hold a joint event came from Andrew Wong of the Searson lab, an INBT trainee who has been instrumental in IMP’s community service activities. I led the event, held on February 27, with Charli Dawidczyk, a doctoral student from the Searson lab.

Our first activity was to build a simple speaker using foam plates, magnets, and wire. Students learned how electromagnetic forces, whose strength and frequency vary depending on the song, deflect the foam plate to create sound waves when the plate is glued to a magnet with a coil of wire around it. The speakers weren’t loud, but everyone participated, even though they might have been more interested in the strong neodymium magnets.

Next, we moved from physics to chemistry and made liquid nitrogen ice cream. We discussed how liquid nitrogen boils at -321°F, much colder than water, and how it would very quickly freeze our liquid ice cream mix. The students made excellent chefs and were excited to see water vapor roil over the lip of the bowl as liquid nitrogen was stirred in to freeze the cream. The recipe got several thumbs up, and the demonstration really held their attention.

I hope the students saw how science comes up in everyday life, even in things we don’t always think about, like music and cooking. By having fun and doing experiments with their mentors and friends, they may realize that a career in science is an option for them. In many ways, IMP is an experiment on how to provide extended families for at-risk students. Problems are tackled on a trial-and error basis by volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. Often, an initial solution does not work; but, just like in the lab, we think about what went wrong and try to improve our approach.

The PIs at INBT have encouraged us to make a difference in the community. I’m grateful that my education at Hopkins has included IMP and the wonderful students and volunteers comprising the organization.