As a lab assistant in CALS’ Center for Eukaryotic Structural Genomics, Stuart Ballard performs tasks typical of an upper-level graduate student: sonicating cells, cleaving proteins and running gas chromatography trials.
But Ballard isn’t a graduate student. He’s a senior at Madison West High School who’s still shy of his 18th birthday.
Baby-faced researchers such as Ballard are becoming a common sight around UW-Madison, which increasingly is trying to cultivate budding young scientists before they even arrive on campus. Through arrangements such as the Youth Apprenticeship Program, a state-run project that matches promising high-school students with practical experiences in their desired careers, CALS labs have employed dozens of science-minded high-school students the past decade.
For students such as Ballard, who is enrolled in YAP’s biotechnology thrust, the program offers a taste of working science that high school just can’t replicate.
“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. In high school, you do your labs and it’s not contributing to human knowledge in any way.”
Students in the program attend weekly evening training sessions to master basic lab techniques such as using pipettes, running gels and handling biohazardous material. Once paired with a professional mentor, they spend 10 to 15 hours per week working in the lab. They get paid for their labor, which involves much more than washing dishes.
“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,” 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.'”
“It’s been a very nice program to be involved in,” adds 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.”
Under Fox’s tutelage, Ballard has learned how to purify proteins while formulating ideas for his own future research. He has helped train undergraduate students as lab assistants, and he was recently offered an opportunity to work as a volunteer in a second lab on campus.
While those commitments can make for a demanding schedule—Ballard is only at his high school for a single weightlifting class—he says the experience is incomparable. Asked if he feels like he’s missing out on a normal high-school experience, he laughs, “Not at all, not at all.”