Young Scientists Academy

Rising Jasper County High School senior Tony Vargas-Miguel is one of five area students participating in Georgia College’s Young Scientists Academy this summer. His work has centered around the harmful chemicals that are found in e-cigarettes through vaping.

This summer five area rising seniors are spending a good chunk of their final summer as high school students inside a science laboratory.

The opportunity is there thanks to Georgia College’s Young Scientists Academy, a grant and donation-operated program that immerses high schoolers in science experiences well beyond their academic levels. For some students, it’s their first time stepping foot inside a lab, whereas others may have been inside one before, but never used the instrumentation. 

Over the last six weeks, they’ve been working on different research topics with real-world applications. All students are scheduled to present their findings to family, friends, teachers and school administrators at the close of this year’s academy, and some may even get the opportunity to publish their work.

GC Science Education Center Director Dr. Catrena Lisse said she started this year’s group off with the basics to set a good foundation.

“The first week we are just teaching them how to read scientific literature,” Lisse said. “Up to this point, they’ve probably never been exposed to a peer-reviewed published article. Like I tell them, it’s not pleasurable per se, like sitting down and reading a novel. You have to break it down in a certain way.”

Students get exposed to a variety of chemistry/biochemistry topics, after which time Lisse has a good idea of what they’re interests are. She then doles out assignments so the young scientists can get to work.

Though based in chemistry, this year’s projects focus on a wide range of topics with many different applications. One student is looking at heavy metals in wastewater while another is observing pesticide residue on strawberries. Lisse, along with her college science majors and professors, guides the high school students through the process to help them reach what all hope are meaningful conclusions. Rising Baldwin High School senior Heket Mitchell is one of the program’s first returning students. She had some unfinished business with her sol-gel research from last year and just had to see it through.

“My project from last year just wasn’t completed, so I wanted to see how far we could go with it,” Mitchell said. “That was my biggest motivation for coming back.”

Sol-gels have multiple applications ranging from the medical and therapeutic fields to the water industry. Mitchell is undecided on her future college major but is leaning toward something science-related. 

Jasper County High School rising senior Tony Vargas-Miguel is tackling a project that is affecting a lot of America’s youth — vaping through e-cigarettes. With flavors like bubblegum and lollypop targeting young people, Vargas-Miguel is learning about the different harmful chemical compounds that can be introduced into young people’s bodies through the habit. 

Mitchell and Vargas-Miguel represent the two different types of students at the Young Scientists Academy — returners and newcomers. Lisse said she enjoys having a good mix of the two.

“I would love to have both,” the GC Science Education director said. “This is my first time having repeaters, so they came in ready to run. They stepped up, more or less, like mentors really, for the other kids because they already knew how to do certain things.”

Students who attend the Young Scientists Academy have the opportunity to be paid a stipend for their work while also gaining valuable experience in the lab that could pay off later in their educational and professional careers. Mitchell heard about it through one of her teachers and hopes that word can spread to more students interested in science so they can take advantage of the opportunity. 

This year’s academy is set to finish up Friday when the young scientists present the research they’ve gathered over the last six weeks. 

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