Birmingham area high school students perform life sciences and engineering experiments in Southern Research labs

Students from Ramsay High School perform a velocity experiment in a Southern Research engineering lab with Gregory Daspit, mechanical engineer.
Students from Ramsay High School perform a velocity experiment in a Southern Research engineering lab with Gregory Daspit, mechanical engineer.

On Thursday, Oct. 22, a total of 40 students from George Washington Carver High School, Holy Family Cristo Rey High School, Huffman High School, P.D. Jackson-Olin High School, Ramsay High School and Vestavia Hills High School visited Southern Research’s Birmingham campuses to participate in life sciences and engineering experiments with SR scientists and engineers.

This was part of SR’s second annual Future Scientists & Engineers of Alabama – the organization’s local community outreach initiative to further educate high school students who show interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.

“We have scientists and engineers working every day to solve some of the world’s hardest problems, and having these students interact with members of this team, and doing so in a real-world R&D setting gives them a view to a range of career choices available to them,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., Southern Research president and CEO. “We hope the interaction continues their inspiration for technology and further equips them for living in our knowledge-based world, wherever the future takes them. And we hope some of these students become future scientists and engineers in our city and at Southern Research.”

SR scientists and engineers instructed and supervised the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior high school students as they conducted experiments within SR drug discovery, drug development and engineering labs. Experiments were followed by a group Q&A session with the students and SR scientists and engineers.

Students attended an evening reception in the courtyard of SR’s Southside headquarters where they met with business, government, and non-profit executives from across Alabama.

A Huffman High School student examines cell slides under a microscope in a Southern Research drug discovery lab with Benjamin Owusu, postdoctorate life sciences researcher.
A Huffman High School student examines cell slides under a microscope in a Southern Research drug discovery lab with Benjamin Owusu, postdoctorate life sciences researcher.

The experiments

Engineering: Students were able to perform several tasks that both engineers and technicians at SR’s Engineering Research Center perform every day for customers such as NASA, Boeing and the U.S. Navy. The work done at ERC provides valuable information needed to develop and improve materials used in space crafts, rockets, turbines, airplanes and missiles. Students were exposed to many different technologies that are used to produce real-world material property data that engineers use every day to perform their jobs, and they saw how science and mathematics play an integral part in producing that data. Participants performed both destructive and non-destructive tests on five metal materials. The non-destructive tests measured the density and ultrasonic velocity of the different materials. A destructive test, called a tension test, was performed by pulling apart a specimen until it broke, and different technologies were used to measure the load to break the specimen and how much it stretched before it broke.

Drug development: Midazolam is a common anesthetic within the benzodiazepine family, and it is known to be metabolized by the liver. In the Drug Development experiment, students cultured liver cells in a three-dimensional bioreactor and dosed them with midazolam. Media aliquots were taken at different time points, and mass spectrometry was performed to monitor the metabolism of midazolam. Biology and chemistry were the foundation for this experiment, while physics and engineering were principles used in developing the three-dimensional bioreactor. While midazolam is a well-studied compound, similar experiments are performed in the development of next-generation pharmaceuticals.

Huffman and Vestavia Hills high school students use microscopy to inspect various objects with Kelly Davis, advanced engineering technician.
Huffman and Vestavia Hills high school students use microscopy to inspect various objects with Kelly Davis, advanced engineering technician.

Drug discovery: In SR’s Drug Discovery labs, students performed experiments that applied both biology and chemistry: DNA extraction and agarose gel electrophoresis; analysis of the principles and uses of fluorescence microscopy, including an overview of a typical staining protocol and visualization of various organelle and protein stains; and synthesis of aspirin – the first research-based pharmaceutical.

About Southern Research:

Headquartered in Birmingham, Southern Research since 1941 has been conducting innovative science and engineering work that helps make people’s lives better. Among the highlights of that work:

  • Developed seven FDA-approved cancer drugs, and is developing 18 other treatments for diseases as part of the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance with the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
  • Developing vaccines to combat infectious diseases around the world.
  • Created a state-of-the-art solar research facility to study the effects of the Southeast’s unique atmospheric conditions on solar power systems.
  • Helping to make water safer and provide healthier habitats for fish and wildlife.

Cover photo: High school students from Holy Family Cristo Rey, Vestavia and Huffman synthesize aspirin in a Southern Research drug discovery lab with Rebecca Boohaker, postdoctorate life sciences researcher.

*Story used with permission of Southern Research.

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