Project ENGAGE Pt. III: Students Become Researchers

Credit Jim Burress / WABE News
Audio version of this story here.

When I last checked in on the Project ENGAGE scholars, they were going on “speed dates” to best match their interests with available mentors and specialized research labs. 

It’s been about a month since that visit, and now students have settled into their lab assignments and are working on topics from stem cell research to HIV treatment complications to osteoarthritis.  

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My first stop is the Botchwey lab, where Amadou Bah shows me around.  

In no time, he shifts from tour guide to science scholar. 

“FTY we were saying was the drug that helps express different receptors for S1P,” he explains. “It’s just interesting and we actually put it into cells.”

As best I can follow, Amadou is talking about stem cells.  He quickly confirms my hypothesis when he pulls a dead rodent from the freezer.    

“And this right here is like a rat,” he says.

Luckily, the bag isn’t see-through.

  When I first met Amadou this spring, he said his goal for the year was to cure cancer.

It still is.

But this lab experience has injected reality into that timeline.

“It’ll probably be hard,” Amadou says. “I really do want to find it, because it kills a lot of people.  Just working like this, this is a first step.”

Amadou’s enthusiasm, aptitude, and hard work, count.  But science begins with mastering the fundamentals.  That takes time, says mentor Tony Awojoodu.

“I think they’re asking the right questions and gaining the right insights, so they will be helpful and productive as lab members in the next few months.”

After wrapping up with Amadou, I next meet up again with Jade Johnson.  She’s the young lady whose smile and openness put anyone at ease.

As we walk across campus to the Bao lab, I ask Jade to tell me what her typical day is like.  

I’m thinking she’ll talk about lab projects, writing reports, memorizing lingo.  

“Basically I get out of the car, walk down the steps, and I go into the building, go up the elevator clock in…”

Her matter-of-fact answer will later make sense to me.  But for now, Jade shows me around.

“This is the spectrophotometer. And what it does, it basically measures out the wave lengths of the nanorods to see if it’s at the high peak that we want to be, she says.

I ask Jade what she knows now that she didn’t know coming in. Again, I’m expecting a “sciencey” answer.

“I know a little bit more about people,” she says, “and that you don’t necessarily always get what you want, but you get what you need.”

Jade’s grandfather has arthritis and underwent a hip replacement.  She wanted to understand how that worked, and hoped for an assignment in Tech’s osteoarthritis lab.

She didn’t get it.

 “I just felt like I wasn’t fit for this particular lab because I didn’t know much about it,” she says.

“And do you now? Do you feel more comfortable?” I respond.

“Yes. The people here are friendly.  Travis, he’s my friend.”

Travis is Tech grad student and mentor Travis Meyer.  He says Jade’s outlook is “refreshing.”

“A lot of the things I take for granted and I just do, they’re like ‘Why do you do that?  What would happen if you did this?’ he says.

Remember how Jade answered my question about a typical day, and how it caught me off guard? 

As Travis praises Jade and her fellow Project ENGAGE scholars, I suddenly get it.  

Jade’s focus on personal growth — kindness, consistency, mastering the fundamentals — is as important as book knowledge.  

“Every morning I come in I say ‘Hello!’  Every time I leave I say, ‘See you later!’ she says. “I think that plays a big role on me and what people perceive me as and accept me for who I am.”