FSU magnet lab pulling in U.S. students, teachers for summer research

Some of the world’s most advanced research is taking place at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, where scientists are pushing the boundaries of human knowledge in the fields of physics, biology, bioengineering, chemistry, geochemistry, biochemistry, materials science and engineering. This summer, those same scientists are taking on another task: mentoring some of the nation’s best and brightest students, as well as schoolteachers from throughout the United States—all of whom are interested in learning more about the world of science.

"The magnet lab exists not only to conduct groundbreaking research, but also to promote science education and to help develop the next generation of science, engineering and science education leaders," said Patricia Dixon, director of the laboratory’s Center for Integrating Research and Learning. "As part of that mission, our summer educational programs help us reach out to educate and excite students, teachers and the general public about science, technology and the world around them."

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Summer Internship Program matches top college students from across the United States with scientists during an eight-week research mentorship at the lab. The program, funded by the National Science Foundation, allows students to explore science at the extremes of magnetic field, pressure and temperature, alongside some of the finest scientists, magnet designers and engineers in the world. This year, 17 REU students are living in Florida State University student housing while working at the magnet lab from June 6 to July 29.

Katie Schwarz, a chemistry major entering her junior year at Washington University in St. Louis, had opportunities to participate in other highly sought internships this summer, she said, but chose the magnet lab because of her many positive experiences there in the past.

"The magnet lab has provided an outlet for my curiosity going back to middle school," said Schwarz, a Tallahassee native. A veteran of numerous internships at the magnet lab during her middle and high school years, Schwarz said she "explicitly decided to come back and work with (chemistry professor) Tim Logan and (biology professor) Piotr Fajer." She is participating in experiments that examine the activation of proteins. Not surprisingly, her main area of scientific interest is biophysical chemistry.

In addition to their work in the lab, REU participants have opportunities to explore North Florida by visiting Wakulla Springs, hiking along the Aucilla River, and taking part in social activities. At the end of the program, each student will present a report summarizing his or her research to fellow students and faculty mentors. Students then are encouraged to work toward having their work published in undergraduate science journals.

Also funded by the National Science Foundation, the six-week Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) Program provides schoolteachers in grades K-12 with the opportunity to participate in real-world scientific research—and to learn how to teach the sciences. This year, 11 teachers from as far away as Hawaii are taking part in the program, which runs from June 13 to July 22.

Jonathon Hamilton, a fourth-grade teacher at Buck Lake Elementary School in Tallahassee with degrees in history and in elementary education, felt he could use some help in learning to teach science to his students.

"You end up teaching more effectively those things that you know something about," he said. While at the magnet lab, Hamilton is taking part in experiments led by scientist Johan van Tol that compare irradiated food samples with others that have been heated in a microwave oven. Both types of samples are subjected to a technique called electron spin resonance to detect and compare the amounts of free radicals—substances that can be harmful to human cells if ingested in large enough amounts. Such information ultimately could determine whether food products such as chicken, fruits, vegetables and nuts that are sometimes irradiated prior to sale are in fact completely safe.

Just learning the process that a scientist goes through has been eye-opening, Hamilton said: "It’s not always a strictly scientific-method approach. It’s a lot about trial and error, and trying new ideas when other ones don’t pan out."

More information on these and other educational outreach opportunities offered by the magnet lab can be accessed on the Internet at http://education.magnet.fsu.edu/.

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, established by the National Science Foundation in 1990, is the world’s premier magnet research facility. It is operated jointly by Florida State University, the University of Florida and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.