Diving in the deep end: being a high school researcher at Northwestern

An interview with Laura McGinn

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Laura's hard at work on the microscope, photo courtesy of M. Whittaker

Laura McGinn has been immersed in a summer lab experience at Northwestern. A graduate of Science Club and a rising senior at Northside Prep, Laura joined Derk Joester's lab for the summer to study biological engineering.

We caught up with Laura to ask about her experience as  the only high schooler on a team of working scientists and find about her deep dive into hands-on research. 

How did you get to be a high school researcher at Northwestern?

Starting in 3rd grade, I joined Science Club. Graduate students from Northwestern would come to the Boys & Girls Club and be great life mentors while also helping us produce really fun science experiments/projects.

Ever since, I've maintained contact with Science Club’s founder, a faculty member at Northwestern, Mike Kennedy. I had always taken an interest in Northwestern and in the midst of junior year I thought, "I want to do an internship this summer -- engineering, psychology, anything STEM related!"

I got in touch with Mike and asked if he could help me out with gaining access to a department. Within a few months, I was visiting a couple different labs during spring break! I took a lot of interest in the Material Science and Engineering Lab that I interned at for a couple days and they seemed to want a high school student so the feelings were mutual. And here I am! 

Describe a normal day for you in the lab.

I used to believe that my Science Club mentor went to Northwestern and did any experiments that she wanted to do all day long. Boy, was I wrong. 

A normal day entails me going to the office and checking emails for any scheduled group or individual meetings or anything from my supervisor, Derk. Then Mike, my graduate student mentor, and I go down to the lab and start discussing what experiments to conduct that day.

Typically, experiments aren't back-to-back because in vitro ("in glass") experiments require a lot of wait time and patience. While I'm waiting for my experiments to finish, I'm usually analyzing and interpreting my data or editing my research paper to get ready to present my work in front of my whole research group (we all do this to keep up to date on what everyone else is doing).

You always have to utilize every second you have in the lab whether it's conducting experiments, analyzing data or even reading literature that has been published in previous years! It was definitely beyond what I initially expected it to be. 

Sounds like you’ve been busy with research and design as well as running experiments. What do you do in your experiments? What are you trying to find out?

Right now, everyone in my lab is attempting to discover the most efficient method to create liposomes – little liquid capsules to transport medicine and other drugs through the body. I am experimenting with hydrogels, exploring how gels grow and change when they are hydrated. Once the gel absorbs an aqueous solution, it swells and we can measure and quantify that swelling using patterned masks we developed. (Sort of like a round ruler for measuring their size.)

Using hydrogels is just one of the many ways that liposomes can form, so we’re testing and refining the process.

What do you find most interesting about your project?

I think the most interesting thing about research is the bigger picture. For instance, my research specifically involves agarose hydrogels, but once you step back and realize how your research is connected to everyone else's in your group, it's very magical. Everyone's goal, in the end, is to aid in producing cells and if we can do that, we could do all kinds of things, like make spider webs or help cure cancer! 

It’s great you’re getting to work hands-on in a lab. What’s it like working with professional scientists every day?

Initially, I was extremely intimidated by the amount of education and knowledge that these scientists have. But I've come to a point where I've realized that we are all here to collaborate. We all help and learn from each other. I still occasionally get overwhelmed by the fact that I am the youngest and least knowledgeable in the group, but it's honestly such a great opportunity to be working with these brilliant individuals. Their ideas never stop flowing! 

It’s interesting being in the lab isn’t what you expected. What new things have you learned or tried?

Having taken a couple advanced chemistry classes and various others in high school, I have a decent amount of science under my belt. But I've definitely been exposed to scientific concepts beyond the fundamentals that I studied in school.

For instance, I have never read any published, peer-reviewed literature before.  It was so challenging! The terminology was initially extremely difficult to grasp.

Also, I have recently been exposed to more complicated techniques and methods. For example, I never worked with such small units in an experiment. Now I work with microscopic things, in nano or micro units. Professional science is much more precise.

Besides those small details, I have learned a lot about myself as a scientist and future college student. I always believed that you had to love every single little thing that you did in your career. But I now know that that is not true. You can love and hate various things about your chosen major, but as long as you are passionate about what you are doing, you should definitely go for it.

Sounds like this experience has really opened your eyes to science career opportunities. Has this experience influenced your career aspirations?   

Yes, it has influenced my thought process a bunch!  Besides a class I took at IIT, I had almost zero experience with engineering, let alone in a research lab. But this internship gave me a deeper experience of what that really means. Getting to see what actual engineers do has allowed me to see a totally different world. 

As you’re finishing up your research experience on campus, what’s next for you?

My lab mentor, Mike Whittaker, is a graduate student at Northwestern. He has been such a great role model and inspiring individual in my life thus far. I recently found out that he will be graduating in the spring and I was really sad! I really want to acquire as much knowledge and wisdom as I can from him so I am thinking about continuing my research here during the school year.

Besides that, I have no idea! This fall I’ll be applying to universities, so we’ll have to see what college opportunities I can take advantage of in the future. 

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