Working alongside graduate and Ph.D. students, three high school students from Albuquerque's South Valley Academy learn basic chemistry lab techniques as part of an outreach effort by a UNM faculty member.
Having grown up in Nepal, Ramesh Giri knows what it’s like to not have many opportunities and resources in school. So now, as a professor of chemistry at The University of New Mexico, Giri thought of a way to give back to this community by starting a program to bring local high school students into his lab to learn about chemistry in a hands-on way.
“I grew up halfway around the world and I never had the chance to learn a lot about science when I was a child,” he said. “I feel like I can relate to these students in some way, so I wanted to give them an opportunity to grow in an academic setting.”
Giri, who began teaching at UNM in 2012, started the program last summer, inviting three students from Albuquerque’s South Valley Academy (SVA) to work and learn in his lab. This year, through a recently awarded grant from a National Science Foundation, Giri was able to offer the program again and brought three new students in to work side-by-side with his graduate and Ph.D. students.
“I’ve always loved chemistry and wanted to challenge myself more even when I was in my high school class,” said Mariah Chavez, 17, a soon-to-be senior at SVA. “So, this has been a great experience for me. It’s been really cool so far.”
“I definitely feel fortunate to be here because a lot of other students applied for this program and I know this experience will benefit me later on,” said Diva Miramontes, 17, also a senior.
The students are learning chemistry techniques typically done by first-year undergraduate students working in a lab. They’re being trained to run columns, check thin-layer chromatography and set up samples for an analytical method called gas chromatography–mass spectrometry; all techniques that must be mastered if a student plans to continue working with chemicals.
“When I see them learning these techniques, I feel very proud,” said Giri. “They’re doing something that Ph.D. students do, and they’re working alongside them every day.”
“Working in an actual lab is not something I’d have a chance to do if it wasn’t for this program,” said SVA senior Jessica Veleta, 16. “It’s been great. I’m really liking it; I’m learning a lot of new things. It’s definitely a great experience.”
The benefits of this effort reach far beyond the academics, too. All three of the students say they’ve been able to build relationships with the graduate and Ph.D. students in the lab, many of whom have offered help with applying for college and even tutoring for future chemistry classes.
“It’s been really awesome,” said Miramontes. “We get to meet people from different backgrounds and learn about their culture. The program has really been great for a lot of different reasons.”
Mariah Chavez, 17, and Diva Miramontes, 17, work together to prepare a column.
While the summer term for the SVA students is coming to end, Giri hopes this isn’t the last he’ll see of them. He says all the students have opportunity to continue working in the lab during the school year through an unpaid internship. Even farther down the road, if students choose to attend UNM for college, Giri hopes they consider taking advantage of the University’s First Year Research Experience (FYRE), a program designed to get freshman undergrads into laboratory settings.
“If every principal investigator starts doing what we’re doing here, I think it will be a tremendous help for students in our community to learn more about opportunities they have in college,” he said.
All three of SVA students say they are already considering attending UNM after high school, and several even think they may even want to major in chemistry; a testament to the success Giri’s program has had and will continue to have on students in the community.