UW-Madison: Kids in the lab: Youth apprenticeship gets high-schoolers hooked on science

CONTACT: Barbara Bielec, BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute, (608) 277-2618, [email protected]; Que Lan, (608) 263-7924, [email protected]

MADISON – Stuart Ballard’s weekly to-do list often looks something like this:

– Monday, sonicate cells;

– Tuesday, cleave proteins with TEV protease and run chromatography;

– Wednesday, prep for gel filtration.

While this might be typical work for a graduate student in the life sciences, Ballard is a senior at Madison West High School who is still shy of his 18th birthday. His work with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Eukaryotic Structural Genomics is part of the Youth Apprenticeship Program (YAP), an innovative project that gives exceptional high-school students an opportunity to get exposure and experience in their desired careers.

Created in 1991, the program is run by Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development, with collaboration from universities, schools and businesses. Statewide, more than 10,000 students have participated in 22 different program areas. This year, Ballard is one of nine Dane County students enrolled in YAP’s biotechnology focus, which offers a taste of working science that they can’t get in high school.

“Working in the research lab is amazing,” says Ballard, who plans to pursue both an M.D. and Ph.D. after college. “It’s meaningful. There is a point (to it). In high school, you do your labs and it’s not contributing to human knowledge in any way.”

Students in the biotechnology program complete a training program at the Bio-Pharmaceutical Technology Center Institute, a non-profit organization affiliated with the biotech firm Promega. Once they’ve mastered basic lab skills such as using pipettes, running gels and handling biohazardous material, they begin working 10-15 hours per week in local research laboratories while attending high school part-time. They are paid for their labor, which involves much more than washing dishes.

“It’s been a very nice program to be involved in,” says biochemistry professor Brian Fox, who is mentoring Ballard and three other apprentices. “Once they get comfortable with the techniques, they turn out to be very helpful employees.”

“They get a bench just like everybody else,” says entomology professor Que Lan, who has had youth apprentices in her lab for seven years. “They get the same treatment as my graduate students. I work with them one-on-one. I help them solve problems.”

Lan says nearly all of her apprentices have gone on to study science as college students, a reward that compensates the time mentors invest working with the young students.

“Kids always associate science with either (being) very smart or very nerdy. You’re not cool. And I think that’s a misconception due to many aspects, but one of the aspects is that they don’t really know how science works,” she says. “I think I’m trying to show them, ‘Yes, you can have a career; yes, you can have a family; and yes, you can have fun,’ ” she says. “Yes, you can do it!”

That’s the message that current UW-Madison student Amanda Pitterle received when she participated in the program during high school. “I don’t know that I’d be looking into a research degree after pharmacy school if I didn’t have the experience in Que Lan’s lab,” she says.

YAP demands large chunks of out-of-school time from students. The training course, for example, runs for four hours every Wednesday evening. Students also have to balance work schedules with classes and other extracurricular activities – not easy for those who participate in sports or academic service organizations.

To succeed, the students need to have a real passion for science, says Barbara Bielec, K-12 program coordinator for the Bio-Pharmaceutical Technology Center Institute. She gives credit to dynamic high-school science teachers for getting students motivated and to faculty mentors for investing their time and energy to make the experience worthwhile.

Ballard agrees that the program requires a serious commitment, but it’s one he’s more than willing to make. “I feel like this information is at a level I want,” he says. “It’s a great challenge.”

And his challenge keeps growing. This past fall, he was asked to join a second UW-Madison lab as a volunteer, so now he’s juggling work in two labs, two college courses and a single class back at high school.