Students wiser for spending WISEST program in engineering labs

(Edmonton) Some summer jobs are more memorable than others. For some students, nothing could beat working in leading-edge research labs at the U of A.

This summer, 60 high school students took part in the annual WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology) summer research program that encourages them to investigate careers in non-traditional fields.

Twenty-two of those jobs were at the Faculty of Engineering, where students worked on projects as diverse as building circuit boards or measuring rates of bacterial growth at a commercial composting operation.

Kaitlyn Visser and Danielle Schmidt worked in civil and environmental engineering professor Daryl McCartney’s lab, along with research associate Kristine Wichuk. Visser, who is entering Grade 12 at Edmonton Christian School, and Schmidt, who travelled to Edmonton from Bassano, Alberta, helped place bacterial and viral samples into temperature sensors that monitor environmental conditions inside commercial-scale compost production facilities.

The sensors were placed in long windrows of compost produced by the City of Edmonton, recording temperatures for weeks on end. Pathogens securely sealed in vials inside the sensors grew in the dark, warm environment of the compost heaps. Once the sensors were recovered, the data—including measuring the growth of the pathogens—were tallied.

Neither Visser nor Schmidt imagined that engineering could involve working with microbes in a lab and doing field research, but both enjoyed the experience.

“I just thought that engineering was building a lot of stuff,” said Visser, one of six students whose summer research experience was sponsored by the Faculty of Engineering. “But working in this lab and doing the work we did was exciting; it was amazing.

“I loved it.”

Schmidt selected environmental engineering as her first choice of subjects for the summer program, and was pleasantly surprised when she wound up in McCartney’s lab.

“It has been so good,” Schmidt said. “I’ve learned so much more than I ever imagined.”

Schmidt says the program offered by WISEST includes terrific advice on networking and following your passions.

“Through WISEST I learned there are tons of options opened to me now,” added Visser.

Julianne Mak, who is entering Grade 12 at Edmonton’s Old Scona Academic High School, spent her summer working on leading-edge technology at one of the world’s most advanced nanotechnology centres.
Mak’s WISEST research program experience began in a meeting with Jie Chen, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who outlined his burgeoning research programs and asked Mak to choose one that captured her interest.

For Mak, the choice was clear: she joined a project that applies electrical engineering research to biomedical challenges.

Her job was to create circuit boards for a device that uses ultrasound to stimulate growth of stem cells and monoclonal antibodies, at Chen’s lab in the National Institute for Nanotechnology, on the U of A’s North Campus.
While the biological impact of the device interests Mak, what really caught her attention was the opportunity to build circuit boards.

“I wanted to go into something related to computer science,” she said. “He gave me the option to choose from all these projects and they were all appealing, but I really wanted to work on the device.”

Besides building the boards, rolling up her sleeves and soldering components to them, Mak also recreated the board designs on a universal computer program, giving Chen’s lab a back-up of the designs and more flexibility in having the boards printed.

She has also written a user’s manual for the device, which Chen is working on having patented.

Chen was impressed with Mak’s work ethic.

“It seems like every time I saw her, she was soldering,” Chen said. “And she had put together a great research poster too.”

And Mak is grateful for the opportunities that have presented themselves and the advice she has received over the summer.

“WISEST just keeps opening doors,” she said.