University of Pittsburgh

commons room

By the Numbers

Written by Peter Kusnic

The biological experiment should have been a success. The teenage researcher did everything her mentor told her to do; but now, for some reason, the numbers aren’t adding up.

She hunches over a lab bench and stares at the calculations in her notebook, trying to find the glitch. According to the numbers, there’s too much phosphorus in her lab solution. Why?

While the teen, Sanche Mabins, ponders what went wrong, her Pitt mentor, Alejandro Samhan-Arias, comes over and leans on the black laboratory countertop. He reminds her that, in science research, one tiny detail can alter an entire experiment. Together, they review her laboratory log. Perhaps she didn’t extract enough lipids from the mouse hearts at the beginning of the experiment. Perhaps she didn’t keep everything at the right temperature. Perhaps she didn’t pour her solution into the correct container. There are many points to examine.

Mabins is one of six Pittsburgh high school students who participated this summer in the Short Term Education Experience for Research (STEER) program in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. The annual program, supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, exposes teenagers to the rigors of laboratory work, as well as to careers in environmental health.

“We have identified a rupture in the pipeline for future environmental health practitioners in undergraduate programs,” says Bruce Pitt, coordinator of the STEER program and chair of the school’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. “The remedy is to reach down to students early, so they know their options before making long-term plans.” The program, jointly run by the department and by Pitt’s Center for Minority Health, also focuses on educating underrepresented students who might otherwise have limited experience with real-world laboratory work.

Mabins, who began her senior year of high school this fall, is interested in studying medicine. She applied to STEER to explore what laboratory research is like. She was paired up with Samhan-Arias, a postdoctoral environmental health researcher at Pitt, to participate in his studies of how the environment can affect cancers. “No matter what Sanche decides to do in the future,” he says, “learning to solve a problem is invaluable.”

Finally, as Mabins reviews her lab notes, it clicks. The solution evaporates at room temperature—of course! The loss of as little as 10 microliters of solution can dramatically increase phosphorus levels. That’s why her numbers are off.  Next time, she’ll know.

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