Young students learn their way around research lab in summer internship

La Belle summer lab internship

Thirty-four high school students and college undergraduates are getting an immersive experience this summer in the world of research in Arizona State University’s biomedical engineering laboratories.

It’s the second year of an internship program developed by a group of faculty members in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Throughout June and July students will work on such things as applications of synthetic biology, medical-device design, bio-electronic sensors – including those that test for cardiovascular disease and hearing loss – and systems that transport medicinal drugs within the body.

“We want students to understand why they are in school and why they are taking all those hard classes. We want to show them that even though they are only in high school or in their first years of college, they can learn enough to do things that really help people,” says assistant research professor Jeffrey La Belle, who created the program and now organizes and manages it.

The young students are getting opportunities to learn in La Belle’s lab as well as those of biomedical engineering colleagues Michael Caplan, Jeff Kleim, Vince Pizziconi, Sarah Stabenfeldt, Brent Vernon and Xiao Wang.

The program emphasizes teaching the students about teamwork, lab safety and how to apply classroom lessons in the lab.

Using buddy system

“Scientific concepts are better learned and retained through engaging experiences. What better way to actively engage students at the high school and early undergraduate levels than giving them opportunities to work in a research lab?” says assistant professor Stabenfeldt.

“The summer internship experience will reinforce some of the fundamental concepts they learn in the classroom and train them in critical analysis techniques necessary for tackling research and engineering problems,” she says.

In La Belle’s lab, interns practice the buddy system, working with ASU student mentors. La Belle can enlist those mentors from the more than 50 ASU students who assist at various times throughout the year in his lab. They range from freshmen to doctoral students pursuing degrees in computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, biology, chemistry, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering and related fields.

With students and faculty involved in last year’s summer research internship program spreading the word about the value of the experience, there was no problem filling all the spots for this year’s intern group.

“They like what we’re doing here,” La Belle says, explaining that the program is even drawing participants from among students attending out-of-state universities who have returned home to Arizona for the summer break.

Student success story

Drishti Sinha, who began interning in La Belle’s lab in 2011 as a sophomore at Hamilton High School in Chandler, is an example of a student who has made the kind of progress La Belle and his fellow faculty members hope to see others achieve.

“At first I was intimidated by the lab procedures,” Sinha says. “I had no experience working in this type of environment. Previously, my science projects were all done at home or in school, or they were theoretical.”

But in only a few weeks she got into the swing of things, with a project assisting La Belle’s team in developing a device that uses tear fluid instead of a blood sample to enable people with diabetes to monitor their blood-sugar levels.

“Our sensor has worked very well, but she is focusing on how we can make it even more accurate,” La Belle says.

As she gained confidence, Sinha entered results of her work in La Belle’s lab in the Chandler Unified School District’s Hamilton Invitation Science and Engineering Fair.

“I had been competing in the science fair ever since the fourth grade, so it is something that is very important to me,” she says.

The knowledge she gained during the internship at ASU enabled her to present her project in a more effective and compelling fashion.  

Earlier this year, Sinha placed first in the engineering category and won the Best in Fair award in the physical sciences in the Chandler school district’s science and engineering fair. That earned her a spot in statewide competition at the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair, where she placed second in the Bio and Material Engineering category.

La Belle has seen her make big strides through her experience at ASU. “At the beginning of her internship we would sit down and work together” to decide what research she should pursue,” he says.   “Now she comes up with research proposals and tells me what her plans are.”

After the science fair competitions, Sinha returned to the lab with ideas already in mind about things she wanted to explore or improve. “The next thing you know, she’s off doing another experiment on her own,” La Belle says – with a hint of pride.

Written by Natalie Pierce and Joe Kullman