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Monday, June 28, 2010

Meeting the Characters

After a morning meeting where we talked about the program, all eight of us went for a talk on lab safety. Lots of good advice there about taking care of your eyes, skin, you know... I won't summarize it all here, but for every way you can hurt yourself in a high school science lab, there must be ten ways you can do yourself in in a professional lab.

Today was also marked near the outset by a very fortuitous accident. For whatever reason, busy schedules being most likely, my fellow teacher Rick and I were left waiting after our safety talk for our graduate student to arrive, only to find that we'd been abandoned. Not wanting to leave us alone and unguided, Prof. Mike Ruane took us under our wing, and made sure that our time was put to good use. Mike is the principal researcher for the entire RET project, and took an hour or more to walk us through the spark notes version of Prof. Altug's research. Even the spark notes were hard, believe me, but the introduction was priceless. He was great at breaking down the cutting edge work that our group was doing - so complex. I'll visit a lot of what Mike explained to us in the next couple of weeks. It was awesome, really!

Next, we met the lead researcher for our group, Prof. Hatice Altug. It was a great bit of luck for us that we got situated with Prof. Altug - for a young professor, she's on a huge roll. The research that her group is doing was a home run in the field where she works.
The super-simple version of her work is that she's working to improve tests for diseases like Ebola, Lassa Fever and others. These are at least three reasons why you should care about this work - first, these are killer diseases in the developing world, and having quick, cheap tests will save lives where people can't wait for a week to get test results. Secondly, since these are some of the most lethal diseases in the world, they might be tempting for terrorists to use, and having fast detection could be crucial in protecting millions of people from attack. Third, the methods her group is working on will help researchers detect tiny amounts of proteins like Alzheimer's. This will help researchers learn about how the disease works as they try to find ways to combat it.

It'll probably take me weeks to figure it out enough to really teach it, but her group has done the amazing - coming up with improvements in testing procedures for pathogens that improve the results by a huge magin.

In addition to the two professors, we've been working closely with Nick and Alex, who are two undergrad engineering students. That's Nick fearfully looking over his shoulder at the camera. I can be very intimidating when holding a two megapixel camera, so he's got reason for concern. Nick's from Long Island, NY, and had a really interesting high school experience in science. I'll be following up with him when we have time, because it sounded so positive for him. Alex is from New Jersey, and has been working steadily on his excellent tattoo work. Like Nick, he's a very bright individual, but admittedly spent most of high school screwing around and playing video games rather than working. He was amazed that he got into BU, which says a lot for SAT scores and how well you interview. And the fact that he killed on the few AP courses that he took when he started to get serious senior year.

We've been working with the guys in the lab where they're doing their own research for the summer. That kind of arrangement isn't too typical, but these guys aren't typical either. Nick, pretty much on his own, put together a student nanotechnology group last school year, and Alex is assembling a $20k quantum light trap for one of his engineering research professors.