Graduate Student Sarena Horava Helps High School Students Discover Research

Graduate student Sarena Horava helping high school students in the labThe fall is fast approaching with school about to start once again. For some ambitious science-minded Austin-area high school students, the summer was less about taking a break and more about gaining a solid research foundation for the future.

Lucia Brunel, Crystal Mountain, Mattie Mouton-Johnson, and Deepak Subramanian are about to enter their senior years in high school, and for the past three weeks, they’ve been working with graduate students from Dr. Nicholas Peppas‘ Laboratory of Biomaterials, Drug Delivery and Bionanotechnology, including chemical engineering graduate student Sarena Horava.

The students are participating in The University of Texas at Austin Graduate Research in High School Hands Program, established by Peppas and his graduate students in 2010 to give interested high school students the opportunity to see firsthand the workings of a research laboratory and to foster interest in biomedical engineering.

Sarena joined biomedical engineering grad students Heidi Culver, Adam Daily, and Lindsey Sharpe to develop experiments for the high school students to conduct based on their own research in drug delivery and biomaterials.

“Rather than create completely different experiments that didn’t pertain to our projects, we took aspects of our own graduate research and built experiments onto those,” said graduate student Lindsey Sharpe. “This way we can show and explain to the students how this one part fits with the whole of the research.”

Students recently completed a swelling study, to see if drug carriers will swell at the right time and place to be absorbed efficiently in the body. They tested carriers to see how they responded at certain pH levels. This helped the students determine the parts of the body where the carriers would be absorbed because pH levels are different in various parts of the body.

Crystal Mountain, who wants to major in biomedical engineering after graduating from St. Michael’s Catholic Academy, found the entire experience valuable.

“I learn by doing,” Mountain said. “And I appreciate seeing how textbook lessons are applied in the lab environment.”

High school students participating in the program get a glimpse of research at The University of Texas at Austin, while graduate students are able to mentor.

“Shadowing a graduate student is exactly how we’d approach this with an undergraduate student, so for 3 weeks, these high school students get to see what an undergrad research experience at UT would be like,” said Sarena Horava.

One student, Mattie Mouton-Johnson, has had a comprehensive UT Austin research experience by publishing a scientific paper. Now in her second consecutive summer working in the Peppas lab, last year she conducted research with Diane Forbes, a chemical engineering graduate student who guided her in writing and publishing a paper titled Controlled Release of an Oral Drug Delivery System Designed to Improve Treatment of Conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis in the Journal of Youths in Science. Mouton-Johnson took the last two weeks of the summer to repeat experiments and write drafts of the paper. Forbes would then review and advise her.

“It’s pretty amazing to know that at 18, I can accomplish something like publishing a scientific paper,” says Mouton-Johnson, who plans to write more papers in the future.

All four of the students plan to apply to The University of Texas at Austin and major in science and engineering related fields.

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