Project ENGAGE Pt. II: Speed Dating

Credit Jim Burress / WABE News

Since last check in, the 12 Project ENGAGE students have spent the better part of a month in bioscience boot camp. 

Now, they’re eager for the next phase—getting their hands dirty in a real Georgia Tech research lab. 

Click the 'play' icon above for an audio version of this feature.

Before that happens, students must choose labs that best meet their interests; likewise,  mentors have to decide which students will be the best fit.   

So they’re all going on a “speed date,” of sorts.

Tables with one chair on each side line a seminar room inside the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering & Bioscience. 

In five minute intervals, students rotate tables until they’ve talked the mentors from each lab.

“Time’s up!” yells Project ENGAGE co-founder and official timekeeper Dr. Manu Platt, indicating it’s time for students to move to the next station. 

“I’m Amadou,” says B.E.S.T. Academy student Amadou Bah as he shakes hands with Tech grad student Jose Garcia.

Listening to their conversation, I’m reminded of what struck me the last time I met Amadou.   He often describes things as “big,” as in big ideas, goals, and opportunities. 

It’s exactly how he frames his “date” with Jose Garcia. 

“We’re actually trying to make a difference in society, and we could be the students or we could be the ones to discover that cure for cancer. Or that cure for HIV or AIDS,” he says with an eager conviction.  “Just imagine one of us having a patent.  That’s amazing.  That’s what keeps me going.”

Amadou is a dreamer, but a confident and motivated one. He peppers into his conversation with Garcia words and phrases like “imagine”  “one day.”  “What if?” 

The Tech grad student says that’s refreshing.  It reminds him of how important taking a step back can be.

“We don’t have to have our heads into this as far deep as we usually do,” he says, talking about the viewpoint the Project ENGAGE high schoolers bring to the table.  “Let’s see this from a big picture standpoint.”

Garcia’s next speed date is with Jade Johnson of Coretta Scott King High School.  Jade’s kindness and quick laugh has a way of putting anyone at ease.  And despite the pressure of this scenario, Jade seems eager, open, but in a  reserved way.    

“I just want to know the background behind everything,” she says to Garica. “I don’t mind being in a lab that I want to be in and don’t get picked for.  I just want to see the background behind all the research that everyone does.”

Last month when Jade and I met, I got the sense she wasn’t as sure of herself as some of the others. 

That seems to be changing.

“I’m really confident now, because hearing peoples’ input about me, about my personality, how I’m smart—it just pushes me along the way even more,” she later tells me. “I just feel the love in the atmosphere and it just makes me happy and tells me that I can do it.”

Once the speed dates wrap up, both mentors and students rank the other. 

Not everybody gets their first choice.  Turns out Jade doesn’t, something I later learn she took pretty hard.

But she presses forward.

For now, these young people have the weekend to look forward to. When they come back, lab assignments begin. 

Each day will be intense—that’s a promise.  Having survived—thrived even—for a month now, they’re ready. 

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