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Editor's note: this article was originally posted on Argonne National Laboratory's website.

Before his junior year of high school, Tom Arndt was pretty sure he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. But then his world changed.

Arndt was one of several students from Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort invited to participate that year in the Exemplary Student Research Program (ESRP) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. He’s been involved with the program for two years now, and while he admits he had some strange ideas about Argonne at first, with visions of mad scientists in lab coats, he soon felt at home.

Students from Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa work at the CNM at Argonne in February 2020 as part of the ESRP.
Students from Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa work at the CNM at Argonne in February 2020 as part of the ESRP.
Images by Mark Lopez / Argonne National Laboratory.

“This experience taught me that science is a team sport,” Arndt said. ​“Everyone is in constant discussion, debate and revision.”

Not only did Arndt and his fellow students get a front-row seat to some of the most cutting-edge science in the world, they were able to conduct their own experiments at the Advanced Photon Source (APS) and the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), both DOE Office of Science User Facilities at Argonne. The APS produces ultrabright X-rays, enabling scientists to peer through dense material and illuminate matter at molecular levels, and is used by scientists around the world in a number of disciplines. The CNM drives nanoscience and nanotechnology into quantum materials, nanoscale dynamics and machine learning, to name a few areas.

The ESRP, now in its ninth year, welcomed 137 students and 23 teachers from 17 diverse Chicagoland high schools for the 2019–2020 school year. It is one of the few elite programs in the world to provide high school students with the opportunity to conduct research using advanced light sources and microscopy, and to join the more than 6,000 scientists who use the APS and CNM.

Not only does the ESRP give students a unique opportunity to experience research first hand at a young age, it also shapes these students as budding scientists, which looks attractive for future college applications and employment opportunities. Benjamin Voliva III, one of Arndt’s teachers at Lincoln-Way East, turned to the ESRP a few years ago to provide his students with an experience that would make their resumes shine like diamonds among pebbles.

A student from Glenbard East High School in Lombard works at the APS in February 2020 as part of the ESRP.
A student from Glenbard East High School in Lombard works at the APS in February 2020 as part of the ESRP.
Images by Mark Lopez / Argonne National Laboratory.

“I contacted the admissions offices of some prestigious universities to find out who stands out to them,” said Voliva. ​“They all said highly qualified candidates who have completed a meaningful, practical experience that demonstrates curiosity, drive and persistence toward the candidate’s academic area of interest.”

That is exactly what the ESRP provides. The program, which welcomes one team from each participating high school, comprising a teacher and a group of up to 15 students, begins in August when the teachers attend an introductory workshop at Argonne. Following the workshop, school teams are matched with a scientist working at the APS or CNM, who provides research expertise for the students’ projects.

For the next several months, teams prepare their research proposals and develop their experiments so their samples are ready when they conduct research at the APS beamlines or CNM in the early spring semester. During the months of development the Argonne mentors assist in all stages of the process while also being resources to the students, helping them learn more about scientific research.

“Seeing the students take on a scientific question, learn about it and then address it is rewarding,” said physicist George Sterbinsky of Argonne’s X-ray Science Division (XSD), who worked with the Lincoln-Way East team this year. ​“I hope they take the logical and insightful thinking they learn through this program and apply it to other problems they encounter, whether in science or any field.”

The team from Lincoln-Way East, an ESRP participant school for several years running, experimented with the detoxification of harmful metals in the environment through phytoremediation, where plants are uses to remove toxins from soil and water. The team specifically examined hyperaccumulating plants that absorb heavy metals such as manganese and chromium.

Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa participated in the ESRP for the first time in 2019–2020. The Lakes team was one of two this year whose proposals matched best with the CNM.

Lakes students looked at the effects of graphene, a 2D carbon form, and graphite, a 3D form, on steel surfaces. Graphene could be used as a replacement for conventional oil-based lubricants, which would keep the environment cleaner. The Lakes team worked with Anirudha Sumant, nanoscientist and group leader at CNM.

“Initially I was extremely nervous,” said Jennifer McMahon, a senior at Lakes. ​“However, with the help of Dr. Sumant, my teachers and my peers, I felt confident and excited to pursue this opportunity.”

McMahon said the experience “ … felt like I was doing something bigger than myself that would help in the future,” and has decided to pursue both biology and physics in college, on a path to a career in medicine.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to expose the students to the highest-end technology in the nation that helps make connections to real-world applications,” said Irina Stan, the Lakes teacher who led the team. ​“The research ignites a love for learning and innovation. Students hope and dream, and they learn about technology that seems out of reach and years ahead.”

After months of preparation, the students visit the Argonne campus in February or March to collect their data at the APS. Once teams have collected and analyzed their data, they design a professional poster showcasing their research, which the students present in the spring at the APS/CNM Users Meeting Poster Session at Argonne. (Unfortunately, the 2020 Users Meeting was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but program organizers are pursuing alternatives to recognize participating students for their work.)

“My favorite part has been going to the poster session at the end of the year,” said Kendall Blankenburg, a current student at Lincoln-Way East who has participated in the program for the past three years. ​“It is such a surreal experience to be among scientists from all over the world and to talk with them about their own groundbreaking research. I always feel a sense of pride looking at the poster my team made, which is a culmination of a year of hard work and research.”

The ESRP provides high schools with the prospect of enhancing their honors and Advanced Placement classes in all scientific fields from biology, chemistry and physics to engineering and environmental science. While acting as a starting block, the ESRP has also inspired the students to look back on their participation.

“The ESRP has been such a huge part of my high school experience,” said Blankenburg. ​“Being a teenager and having the opportunity to work with such advanced equipment has given me the opportunity to explore my own passion for science. It also has given me the confidence to pursue a career in science.”

After doing three experiments, she said, she has gained focus and direction for her career, and the experience has opened many doors during the college admission process. ​“I have a talking point for college interviews and scholarship essays,” she said. ​“The ESRP never fails to impress.”

Zach Martin, an alumnus of Lincoln-Way East who previously participated in the ESRP, concurs. ​“Our team was given the tools and trust required to perform a serious scientific study focusing on the source of a real-world issue,” he said. ​“What we accomplished felt meaningful because it was truly our own work.”

Martin’s experience influenced his decision to study materials science and engineering when he entered Northwestern University in the fall of 2018.

“When I left the ESRP at the end of the year, my most important takeaway was a deeper understanding of what to expect of a career in research,” Martin said. ​“When you are a high schooler, there are few opportunities to be involved in long-term projects. This program was a select opportunity at my high school in which I could participate in this kind of work.”

With the research experience gained through the ESRP, young students have found the program to be a great resource that has led many of them to pursue research and applied science degrees in college. Because of his experience at Argonne, Tom Arndt learned what it means to be a researcher, which shifted the direction of his future career. He is now studying mathematics and chemistry in his freshman year at North Central College in Naperville, Ill.

“Spending time at Argonne developed my passion for research,” he said. ​“Science doesn’t need to have a direct and immediate real-world application. The ESRP helped me embrace an ideal for learning for the sake of learning.”

The following school groups participated in the 2019-2020 ESRP:

Bolingbrook High School

Students: Matthew Eberle, Trisha Patnaik, Zihao Xu, Annabeth Yeung

Teacher: Lois Emde

Scientist: Paul Chow, beamline control scientist, XSD

Downers Grove South High School

Students: Peter Kowalski, Marco Oceguera, Olivia Yesker

Teacher: Michelle Sachtleben

Scientist: Martin Holt, scientist and group leader, CNM

Glenbard East High School

Students: Salmah Abdulkadir, Faria Ansari, Grace Chambers, Preaksha Garg, Patris Haxhiaj, Ammarah Hussaini, Christine Solch, Era Srivastava, Katie Tonielli, Grace Tu

Teacher: Karen Beardsley

Scientists: Tony Lanzirotti and Matt Newville, University of Chicago

Glenbard South High School

Students: James DiCarlo, Gustavo Fonseca, Shawn Malik, Tyler Meeks, Ethan Mesina, Mira Murthy, Michaela Reif, Thaddeus Scharf, Thandia Sungvornyothin

Teachers: Amanda Raymond, Collin Voigt

Scientist: Tianpin Wu, physicist, XSD

Glenbrook South High School

Students: Kristen Castelino, Rafael Crespo, Josef Hiller, Tomoki Imura, Maraya Nikolova, Tim Noginsky, Eric Sander, Anshul Sukhlecha, Sufyaan Syed, Nathan Vuong

Teacher: Jeff Rylander

Scientist: Carlo Segre, Illinois Institute of Technology

Hoffman Estates High School

Students: Julia Chom, Amber Dellacqua, Darshan Desai, Vanessa Huerta, Jagadhish Sathish Kumar

Teacher: Wayne Oras

Scientist: Binhua Lin, University of Chicago

Lakes Community High School

Students: Yumna Ahmed, Dalton Hass, Allison Heuschmidt, Jennifer McMahon, Michael Variny

Teacher: Irina Stan

Scientist: Anirudha Sumant, nanoscientist and group leader, CNM

Lemont High School

Students: Benjamin Clarage, Karolina Gal, Kelsi Padalia, Isabella Pirie, Mirella Sammartano, Sanamtha Trejo, Inez Yaagoub

Teachers: Karen Aleman, Erin Horan

Scientists: Olga Antipova and George Sterbinsky, physicists, XSD

Lincoln-Way East High School

Students: Melissa Bauer, Kendall Blankenburg, Sarah Cooley, Adrian Dauber, Husna Hussaini, Jillian Ketchen, Kira Martin, Rishi Patel, Patrick Rossetto, Katherine Wrobel

Teacher: Benjamin Voliva

Scientist: George Sterbinsky, physicist, XSD

Lockport High School

Students: Anna Blaszkiewicz, Alette Elde, Tomas Ferriter, Liam Horan, Elizabeth Nacino, Michael O’Callaghan, Cameron Viar, Christopher Vistian

Teachers: Bill Kane, Karen Murphy

Scientist: Ross Hrubiak, physicist and beamline scientist, XSD

Maine South High School

Students: Tyler Bastin, Jessica Beck, Ana Birkett, Adam Cubon, Nicole Debrauwere, Erin Doherty, Joana Flores, Dennis Kobuzi, Niko Koupas, Carlo Kwon, Julianna Moore, Sabrina Moore, Juliana Parisi, Katherine Wiemeler, Marcela Wilk

Teacher: Kay Orosz

Scientist: Debora Meira, Canadian Light Source

Metea Valley High School

Students: Nynika Badam, Jonathan Barker, Sahaja Danthurthy, Hariharan Kannan, Ayush Khot, Sannidhi Mohan, Pravallika Padyala, Xitali Sanchez, Diya Sharma, Rohan Vanjani, Zachary White

Teachers: Jonathan Ogrodnik, Vanessa Troiani

Scientist: Erica Duguid, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute

Naperville Central High School

Students: Kevin Chen, Hannah Fewkes, Sarah Hadjarab, Ziyin Wang, Colin Yao, Mitchell Zhen, Kathy Zheng

Teacher: Katherine Seguino

Scientist: Volker Rose, physicist, XSD

Neuqua Valley High School

Students: Kimmia Fotovat, William Fu, Kiana Mohammadian, Kevin Roberts, Muskan Sidhu, Sonia Suratkal

Teacher: Daria Prawlocki

Scientist: Denis Keane, Northwestern University

Riverside-Brookfield High School

Students: Maxwell Brand, Olivia Buffo, Grace Di Bartolomeo, Ryan Encher, Daniel Kawiecki, Sydney Lindenberg, Ricardo Linares, Aidan Regan

Teachers: Mark Schaedel, Sam Weiss

Scientist: Carlo Segre, Illinois Institute of Technology

Romeoville High School

Students: Ryan Boots, Michael Daum, Diana Hernandez, Faith Miller, Isabella Nkemeh, Arta Osmani, Samantha Padal, Maya Ramos

Teachers: Sandrine Clairardin, Tina Paulus

Scientist: Carlo Segre, Illinois Institute of Technology

Tinley Park High School

Students: Nick Ballay, Todd Bajzek, Ellie Eisses, Hannah Hallman, Mitchell Hendricks, Ashley Kennedy, Sam Lezon, Bella Pequette, Vineet Pillai, Domonic Rana, Christian Sechel, Jenna Skanberg, Micah Stevenson, Jacob Werner-Bickel

Teacher: James Birrell

Scientist: Volker Rose, physicist, XSD

About Argonne Educational Programs and Outreach
Argonne’s Educational Programs and Outreach — through awe-inspiring learning experiences, exciting programs, and active outreach —welcomes every middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate student to join the Argonne community. Argonne’s Educational Programs invite students on new pathways, inspire connections and introduce a diverse new generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) game-changers to world-class science. At Argonne, students are exposed to key concepts through interactive programming, are challenged to develop innovative solutions that reflect professional scientific research practices and are engaged in real-world problem-solving to show how they can apply their skills to shape their futures in the world. Argonne scientists who participate in Argonne Educational Programs and Outreach build positive connections with individual students to foster science identities and bring out the best in their potentials. Argonne Education connects with over 30,000 youth and families at Outreach events, hosts over 4,400 middle and high school students at the Learning Center and employs over 900 undergraduate and graduate students each year.