Discovering research

Discovering research

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Summer program inspires bright young minds from across the country and the world
Diana Lu, Praakruti Cherukuri, and UI faculty mentor Maurine Neiman examine snails under a microscope.
High school students Diana Lu (at left) and Praakruti Cherukuri (viewing snails under microscope) perform hands-on research in Assistant Professor Maurine Neiman's lab (at right). Photo courtesy of Mei-Ling Shaw Williams.

Diana Lu returns to her dorm room at the end of each day with her hands smelling of chalk and a sense that she’s accomplished something significant.

She’s involved in a study of how nutrients, including those in fertilizer runoff, affect growth in freshwater snails in a University of Iowa biology lab.

Lu feeds the snails chalk to help them build strong shells along with other nutrient-enriched diet treatments. On Mondays, she takes photos of the snails under a microscope. On Tuesdays, she runs the photos through a computer program to measure and compare their growth. Wednesdays through Fridays, she’s cleaning the snails’ cups. All week, she takes part in formal and informal meetings with other lab members.

“Even on days when I’m just cleaning the cups, I feel like I’m doing something important,” Lu says, standing in the chilly “snail room” lined with water-filled specimen cups. “I enjoy contributing to a project.”

Lu is one of 31 high school students doing hands-on science as part of the UI Secondary Student Training Program (SSTP), which draws some of the country and the world’s brightest young minds to experience life as scientific researchers at a major university. SSTP is administered by the UI College of Education’s Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.

The six-week camp for high school sophomores and juniors started June 16 and culminates on the final day with a poster session from 10 a.m. to noon Friday, July 26, in the Blank Honors Center lobby. Students will present their research findings from labs in UI departments including engineering, biology, biochemistry, pharmacy, chemistry, physics and astronomy, psychology, and public health. The poster session is free and open to the public.

All 31 SSTP students will display their research on topics ranging from engineering to public health Friday, July 26, from 10 a.m. to noon in the Blank Honors Center Lobby. The event is free and open to the public. For more information or for special accommodations to attend, contact Kate Degner at or 319-335-6213.

SSTP administrator Kate Degner reports that of the 31 SSTP students this summer, six are from Iowa, 23 are from other states as far flung as New Jersey and California, while two students come from overseas—one from Turkey and the other from Italy.

One of the many benefits of the SSTP program, Degner says, is that it encourages talented students to consider attending the UI. Nearly 11 percent of participants to date have become Hawkeyes.

Praakruti Cherukuri, a junior from New Jersey, is working in the same biology lab as Lu but has a different role in the overall research project. Her work is primarily computer-based, where she charts the presence of disease-causing mutations in sexual versus asexual snails.

Cherukuri says her positive experience with SSTP has made her consider new career options.

“I guess I never thought about research being an option, but I really like this experience,” she says.

Lu and Cherukuri are both working with faculty mentor Maurine Neiman, an assistant professor of biology, who has been an SSTP mentor for five summers and says she strives to give these students a “central role in a real project.”

Over the past five years, three SSTP students have earned coauthor status with Neiman on published papers and two others have attended the UI and continued their work in Neiman’s lab.

James Buchholz is an assistant faculty research engineer at the UI’s IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering lab, a world-renowned center for education, research, and public service focusing on hydraulic engineering and fluid mechanics. He’s involved in SSTP for the first time this summer and is mentoring two students.

Rohan Aggarwal, of Clinton, and Arda Boga, of Istanbul, are conducting research that Buchholz anticipates will “impact our understanding of energy harvesting from vortex dominated fluid flows that are ubiquitous in engineered and natural systems around us, and will provide fundamental insights that help us control these flows to achieve desirable outcomes.”

Buccholz says the SSTP experience provides students early exposure to research with two significant benefits.

“First, students learn how to conduct research, how to think critically, and about the field of science in which they are engaged,” he says. “Second, it provides students with an opportunity to explore a field of study without making a big commitment.”

Boga says SSTP has helped “discover the scientist in me.”

“I have grasped that research is not a fast process, but requires a lot of patience and determination,” he says.

Boga has enjoyed his SSTP experience so much he’s already been in touch with researchers in his home country to set up additional hands-on research opportunities there.

“I have learned to analyze problems from a professional perspective, rather than that of a high school student,” he says.

For more information about SSTP, visit

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all UI-sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires a reasonable accommodation in order to attend this poster session, contact Kate Degnerin advance at or 319-335-6213.


Kate Degner, College of Education--Belin Blank Center, 319-335-6213
Jan Warren, College of Education--Belin Blank Center, 319-335-6148


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