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DukeREP Gives High Schoolers a Taste of Engineering

Local students gain lab experience thanks to a new summer outreach program from Duke BME

For most high school students, summer break usually involves family vacations, part-time jobs, and sleeping in until noon. But for four Jordan High School students, their final summer before senior year involved learning how to 3D-print, pipette and develop software in labs at Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (Duke BME).

These students were part of the new Duke Research in Engineering Program (DukeREP), a seven-week summer experience for high schoolers with an interest in science and engineering. The program matches selected students from Durham Public Schools with BME labs at Duke, where they work on specific projects with mentors and gain insight into what it takes to be an engineering student. At the end of seven weeks, the DukeREP fellows present their projects to students and faculty during the annual Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) poster session. 

“Opportunities like this are often disproportionally accessible to well-connected individuals, and we wanted to create a program that was especially accessible to underrepresented groups in STEM,” says Hala El-Nahal, a PhD student in Duke BME and co-founder and president of DukeREP.

In addition to learning practical engineering skills, students participated in weekly social activities and seminars to learn more about college life. They also attended courses on college advising, professional development and talks from professors and graduate students on various topics in engineering. “We wanted our students to leave DukeREP feeling fully prepared for the college application process,” says El-Nahal. “Along with their final poster and research report, students were required to submit a final draft of their common application essay and resume at the end of the program.”

“I had a great time working in the lab during the program,” said Xavier Gomez, who worked in Professor Jennifer West’s lab with his mentor, Rachel Katz, a PhD student in BME. “I was able to help create a 3D vascularized tumor model, and during that process I learned 2D and 3D culture techniques, how to conjugate peptides to polymers and other lab skills. The experience definitely made me excited to pursue engineering in college.”

Fellow student Amy Cheng worked in Associate Professor Marc Sommer’s lab, helping test different types of image movement on a subject’s acuity with the goal of using their findings to create better retinal prosthetics. “I learned a lot about programming, and I think I’d be really interested in studying computer sciences in college.”

For Lorenzo Shaikewitz, summer in a lab meant learning how to get better recordings of neural activity. Working with his mentor, Kimberly Lennox, a PhD student in Assistant Professor Yiyang Gong’s lab, Shaikewitz investigated how to reduce artifacts, or background noise, from images of mouse neurons. “It was really cool to see people create these advanced imaging tools with objects that are commercially available to anyone,” he said. “I can’t pick out a favorite experience––I enjoyed every part of the program.”

“I’d definitely recommend DukeREP to any high school students who are interested in engineering,” said Alex Wigger, whose poster, “Prototyping ARFI Phantom and Transducer Holder for Clinical Ultrasound Use,” won a prize during the REU poster session. During his time in Professor Kathy Nightingale’s lab, Wigger 3D-printed a stand for a prototype ultrasound transducer and a test-imaging phantom device that helps to calibrate the ultrasound probes before use.

“I had a great time working in Dr. Nightingale’s lab. Not only do I know I want to be an engineer when I get my undergraduate degree, but this program has also made me consider getting a master’s degree or even a PhD, so that’s really exciting.”

To learn more about the Duke Research in Engineering Program, visit