High School Students Thrive in Duke Environmental Engineering Laboratory

Karl Linden (middle), Ying Liu (left), and Jeff Hu
Ying Liu, Karl Linden and Jeff Hu

Initiative, creative thinking and a high school chemistry project on antioxidants took two North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) students out of their classroom and into a Duke University environmental engineering laboratory.

With the encouragement of their NCSSM adviser Myra Halpin, Ying Liu, from Wilmington, N.C., and Haonan Jeff Hu, from Cary, N.C., developed an idea for a research project and contacted Duke environmental engineering Professor Karl Linden to talk about collaborating. Linden specializes in ultraviolet disinfection and oxidation research.

Eager to encourage young scientists, Linden invited the two to present their ideas. “I have to say that I was very impressed with both Ying and Jeff. They were well-prepared, driven, focused and ready to work,” said Linden.

“It is never easy having new people in the lab, especially younger, inexperienced students, not to mention the unknowns associated with high school students,” Linden said. “But after meeting with Jeff and Ying, I knew it would be a good experience for me, for my graduate students, and most of all, for them.”

Hu and Liu worked with Linden’s laboratory to investigate the effects of antioxidants on of E. coli bacteria exposed to UV radiation. They found that antioxidants significantly lessened the damage of UV radiation and that the presence of antioxidants enables the bacteria to develop a resistance to some UV damage.

Hu and Liu submitted their work to the Siemens Westinghouse Science Competition and made it to regional finals (top 18 teams in the nation). The project was also recently selected as one of the 10 student experimental modules to be flown on the SEM high altitude balloon -- a NASA program. The payload will be flown in April. Next up for Hu and Liu is the North Carolina Science Fair, and a chance to advance to Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Jeff Hu

“Jeff came up with the idea for the research project after reading an article in Scientific American about Nietzsche's Toxicology and how organisms can develop resistance to stresses. At the time, Ying was also doing some work with antioxidants on her own and they decided to incorporate both into the research,” said Linden.

The research was scheduled to last for a block of three weeks full time work. But Hu and Liu ended up working both before and after for several weeks in preparation and completion of their study.

Linden, postdoc Zuzana Bohrerova and doctoral student Hadas Mamane-Gravetz provided the students with training for all the experimental lab procedures.

Ying Liu

“There was a lot of training. We had to learn the laboratory protocols and how to use all the equipment. And there was safety trainingÂ…lots of safety training,” said Liu. She didn’t mind, however, as she plans to pursue a degree in biology and a career in research. Liu has applied to Duke and several other universities, but hasn’t made up her mind where she wants to go.

Hu and Liu learned how to grow E. coli, make a growth curve, do serial dilutions of E. coli, plate E. coli and count the bacteria. They learned to use UV exposure systems and a photoreactivation system, to measure and calculate UV fluence, and to use an autoclave and sterile techniques. The team streaked microbes on plates and isolated colonies to examine generational effects.

“Jeff showed tremendous dedication by coming in before the experiments were planned to begin in order to practice laboratory techniques,” said Linden. “Ying was very patient with the lab work and worked with high ethical standards such as being very firm about using sterile techniques correctly, which was admirable for a student with little experience in the lab,” said Linden.

“We were all amazed by their strong will, hard work and open minds. Perhaps the highest complement came from one of my graduate students who said she would welcome Liu and Hu to work with her in the lab anytime,” Linden said.

Halpin, Hu and Liu’s NCSSM advisor, said that her entire class has benefited from the collaboration. "Dr. Linden and his research group provided a unique opportunity and experience for Ying and Jeff. The techniques they learned have carried over to my research class this year. Ying and Jeff taught my new research students sterile techniques and help them prepare bacteria cultures for a fuel cell experiment,” she said.

“It is very rewarding for me to see the growth demonstrated by Ying and Jeff as a result of this experience. Dr. Linden and his graduate students communicated to the students that they had good ideas and the pursuit of their research was of interest to science,” said Halpin. “This validation challenged and encouraged them to work the extra hours and strive to control variable. They knew they were "doing science" not just fulfilling an academic requirement.”

Still, the excitement of working in a real lab aside, Liu and Hu said the best part of the project was getting to wear the lab coats. Liu’s Dad, a biostatistician, purchased the two their own coats.

“Jeff and Ying really brought something new into our laboratory. In fact, I wasn’t familiar with some of the research they brought up and had to do some reading myself,” said Linden. “They will need to do some more experiments to flesh out their data, but I would love to see them publish their work in a peer reviewed journal.”

Halpin is encouraging Liu and Hu plan to write a full technical research paper and submit it for publication to an undergraduate research journal.

Hu was selected as an early decision applicant and admitted to Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering and hopes to continue working with Linden as an undergraduate researcher. “I’m so excited. Duke has always been my first choice for college,” he said.