From DNA extraction to networking: students

Hispanic-Latino high school students visit Argonne for the first time to explore nuclear energy and DNA, as well as to network with scientists.

The students each chose a single strawberry and carefully placed it in their plastic bags. They then crushed these bags until the strawberries were reduced to a red puree. But it wasn’t for a smoothie.

It was for their first experiment in a national laboratory. They were going to strain the juice, use professional instruments and extract the DNA.

Spraying the strawberries opened up the nuclei of cells which would help release DNA. The students followed the instructions of sequencing specialist Stephanie Greenwald using a solution of dish soap and salt, then ethanol to bring the DNA out of its watery state. After following the process, the students discovered how the DNA eventually separated into a slime that looked, surprisingly, like snot.

“It was exciting, especially working with different things and how you can learn something new every day.” — Angel Rojas

Angel Rojas said the strawberry experience made him think about what it was like to be in a lab every day. “It was exciting, especially working with different things and how you can learn something new every day,” Rojas said.

They were among 37 students on the Little Village Lawndale High School campus in Chicago who saw first-hand how scientists and related professionals — many of them Hispanic/Latino — carry out essential research and other work at the 17th Annual Hispanic/Latino Educational Awareness Day (HEOD) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. It took place on October 11 during National Hispanic Heritage Month. In addition to participating in experiments, students networked with scientists, toured facilities, and listened to career panel discussions.

For nearly two decades, Argonne and one of its employee resource groups – the Argonne Hispanic/Latino Club, or AHLC ERG – have partnered with local schools in underserved populations to promote careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). At the forefront of this effort is the annual HEOD event which gives first- and second-year students a first-hand look inside one of the nation’s top labs and helps them consider new career opportunities. .

This year’s HEOD marked the return of students to Argonne after last year’s virtual event. In addition to learning how to extract DNA from strawberries, first and second year students also learned about supercomputers and supercomputing applications, nuclear and other energy sources, and received information career information and advice on how to achieve a STEM career or related fields.

Jacari Williams said this first visit inside a national lab was “very informative”.

“Supercomputers were cool and showed how things were done,” said Williams, who plans to major in engineering or computer science in college.

Students on the Little Village Lawndale High School campus learn about STEM energy sources, DNA and careers at the Argonne Hispanic/Latino Education Awareness Day during National Hispanic Heritage Month . (Image by Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory.)

Christian Velazquez was fascinated by nuclear reactors and the fields of nuclear energy.

“We never talk about it at school. So I was able to learn more about the many ways we get energy,” said Velazquez, who wants to apply for an internship at Argonne and encourage his friends to do so as well.

Students who have attended HEOD over the years have been enthusiastic and curious, said Michael D. Kaminski, senior nuclear chemical engineer in Argonne’s Strategic Security Science Division. Kaminski, who is of Mexican and Polish descent, is president of AHLC ERG.

So, Kaminski wants to make sure these students get the information they need to succeed.

“When I went to career days at local schools in Latino communities, I rarely saw another Latino professional and almost never saw another scientist, lawyer, or accountant,” Kaminski said. “People who go to career days are family members, and they are often blue collar workers like my parents and work in these trades. So we try to be more present in these communities and during their events.

There are an incredible number of intellectual abilities that Argonne needs to harness in this group of students, Kaminski said.

“We need their insights, and we need their innovation, if we are to perform as well as possible as a nation. We tell them we want your face in Argonne. We want your insights and experience to help us solve the most daunting problems we face as a society,” Kaminski said.

HEOD can be a powerful experience for these young adults, said Jofrey Quintanar, sustainability project manager at the Argonne Project Management Organization. He is also vice-president of the AHLC ERG.

“At this event, we can show these kids how they can explore and consider different career paths,” said Quintanar, originally from Mexico. “When you talk to them and ask them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Their expectations are limited. They will say things like becoming a baseball player or a football player. There is nothing wrong with that. But, at least we are exposing them to other opportunities, because there are so much potential in these kids, they would definitely succeed in a STEM career.

Students on the Little Village Lawndale High School campus learn how to extract DNA from a strawberry during Argonne's Hispanic/Latino Education Awareness Day during National Hispanic Heritage Month.  (Image by Mark Lopez, Argonne National Laboratory.)
Students on the Little Village Lawndale High School campus learn how to extract DNA from a strawberry as part of Argonne’s Hispanic/Latino Education Awareness Day during National Hispanic Heritage Month. (Image by Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory.)

The establishment of such a vital foundation is evident, judging by the letters from teachers and students grateful for the HEOD experience. In 2021, the AHLC ERG received the People Who Make a Difference award from School District 129 in West Aurora.

Argonne aims to help these young people overcome their fears and inspire them, Quintanar said.

“If I’ve learned anything from my humble beginnings, it’s to be resilient and adapt to change,” Quintanar said. “Modern problems are too complex and cannot be solved by an individual, so always strive to be reliable and add value to your team.”

When HEOD began 17 years ago, many Hispanic-Latino students had no idea that Argonne existed and that people like them could be scientists and engineers working on projects of national and international interest. said Giselle Sandi, who was an assistant chemist at the former Chemistry. division and the president of the HLC at the time. She is now responsible for operations within the chemical sciences and engineering division.

“I remember one of the students who was fascinated by the advanced photon source,” Sandi said. “Years later, she wrote to me that she was pursuing studies in physics, and it all started with this visit that we arranged. I felt that we had accomplished our mission.

Funding for HEOD is provided by the Argonne Leadership Institute, Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories at the University of Chicago, and donations from MadMaxMar.

Additionally, AHLC ERG recently partnered with Wintrust Bank to create four new scholarships for high schools in communities where the bank has branches, including through the Little Village Lawndale High School Campus. AHLC ERG organizes fundraisers for scholarships.

Other AHLC ERG partners include MadMaxMar, El Ranchito, Atotonilco and other individual donations from Argonne employees.

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