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Igniting Youthful Curiosity
Kentucky Young Researchers Program

by Jeff Worley

Nine Lexington students from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and a Hazard High School student recently completed their work in the Kentucky Young Researchers Program, which was established three years ago by Fitzgerald Bramwell, vice president of Research and Graduate Studies at UK. Thirty students have participated in this program since its inception.

Photo of Doug Kalika and Matt WoodyardWith UK mentor Doug Kalika, Dunbar student Matt Woodyard works on a computer simulation of how plastic flows through a mold.

"The concept for developing a formal pipeline of students into our research programs was the result of several conversations I had in early 1996 with Dunbar math and science teachers Walter Koetke and Elizabeth Kikuchi," Bramwell says. "We wanted to promote a city-wide program to encourage students to enter research early in their scholastic training. I felt that such an experience would open our programs to contributions from bright and innovative young minds, and that in turn the university would provide these students with access to our faculty, students and superb research facilities."

The program has drawn most of its student participants from Dunbar's Math, Science and Technology Center, which has requirements that make the UK program attractive. "This is an academically rigorous program for students who have high ability and strong work ethics," says Jimmy Adams, director of the center. "We have them do a year-long research project, typically through UK." The students begin their project in the fall of their junior year and must complete it during the early spring of their senior year. They present the results of their work at Dunbar in early March.

"We usually have from 20 to 25 students in the program at any one time," Adams says. "We expect the students to put in eight to 10 hours a week working on their project."

He explains that the students tend to be highly motivated, resourceful self-starters. They are encouraged to do their own research to initially find an area of interest and to find a mentor at UK who will work with them.

"I made appointments with people in agronomy and civil engineering to find out what they were doing and if I was interested in what they were doing," says Andrea Lubawy, who graduated from Dunbar in 1998 and is now a student at Rice University. "I found a professor in civil engineering, Dr. Yi-Tin Wang, who was doing bioremediation with constructed wetland systems. I'd had an interest in the environment for a long time and wanted to do some kind of remediation project, so his work sparked my interest." Andrea also talked with one of Wang's colleagues, Gail Bryon, and the three of them hammered out a plan for Andrea to assist him in his research.

Her allotted time to work with Wang began in the early afternoon, 6th hour at Dunbar. "My work involved me driving to Scott County and taking wetland samples," says Andrea, whose father is a UK professor in the College of Pharmacy. She drove to a farm owned by a UK agronomy professor which had a septic tank system connected to a constructed wetland ("think of a wetland as a garden but with very marshlike plants—cattails, water irises and sweetflag," Andrea says).

She and Wang sent the liquid from the septic tank through the wetland and took periodic samples from various points to see how much of the bacteria in the liquid was eventually removed by chemical reactions that take place in the wetland soil and plants. "We found that the rate of removal was significant," Andrea explains, "that the level of fecal coliforms (bacteria like E. coli found in the intestine) decreased dramatically. By the time the liquid got to end of the 40-foot wetland, the coliforms were 99 percent removed, a dramatic decrease."

This was an important finding, she says, because if the soil and plant root systems can so successfully remove these bacteria, there's no need for costly chemicals that may also be dangerous to the environment.

Chemical and materials engineering professor Doug Kalika, another UK mentor, found himself in dual roles in the program. He not only mentored Dunbar student Matt Woodyard, whose project involved computer simulation of how plastic would flow through a mold, but he also helped two other students hook up with UK mentor and psychology professor Ruth Baer. Baer is involved in developing new behavioral analysis techniques to help children with autism. And Kalika's interest in Baer's work is quite personal: the child that Baer and the two Dunbar students worked with to develop and test methodology is Kalika's daughter.

"In this case the mentoring mostly took place at our home," he says. "And though the students—Jonathan Keefe and Margaret Wallen—have graduated from high school, they are still working with my daughter. They are spending the summer doing additional behavioral therapy intervention with her and with other children with autism in Fayette County."

Adams at Dunbar is clearly excited about every aspect of this program. "It's a win-win proposition," he says. "We've got high school students doing college-level research, and several have had their work published."

But what about the UK mentors, professors whose time is already eaten up by research, teaching, grading, committees, and community involvement—what do they get out of it?

"The work done by Dunbar's students helps drive and support the research that goes on in my laboratory," says Kalika. "I also think it helps me from a teaching standpoint. Not only can I take some of the work Matt does and integrate it into the courses that I teach on polymer processing, but I think I've become a better teacher for the experience. The program challenges you to teach fairly sophisticated material in a way that will be meaningful to the student who doesn't have the prerequisite coursework."

"Of course it's time consuming, but most of the mentors who have volunteered tell me they're happy to take another student," says Joe Fink, UK assistant vice president for Research and Graduate Studies, who administers the program. "And faculty can receive from our office up to $500 to be used for chemicals or supplies, photographic services or travel to collect data or report results."

"It benefits everybody," Baer says. "The students get a good head start on experiencing college, and they earn stronger credentials for their resumes. The researcher benefits because these students can be an integral part of the research effort."