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STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: A Summer for Science

Updated: Nov 8, 2019

by SYDNEY CLIFFORD and GRACE LEBER - The summer before senior year is one to never forget. For one Westfield student in the Summer Science Program at Purdue University, this was no exception.

West Lafayette, IN (July 2019) - Despite being a high school senior, this summer Cecilia Leber (12) turned into a college student, completing her own biochemistry research at Purdue University. While living on Purdue’s campus for six weeks, she participated in lectures, spent long hours in the lab, and created a research report 19 pages in length, all while forming close bonds with high school students from around the world.

“We did research on enzymes,” Leber said. “Our ultimate goal was to design a fungal inhibitor for a specific enzyme in a fungal pathogen.”

Enzymes, catalysts that speed up reactions, allow fungi to destroy crops around the world. By creating an inhibitor, the reaction would be blocked, preventing a lost harvest.

“Fungal pathogens are responsible for a very large amount of crop loss and economic loss as a result,” Leber said. “Maize is really important for the economies of South American and African countries.”

However, this program did come with an extensive application process. Just like a college application, Leber had to submit transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation and short answer essays.

“Pro-tip: a couple of [the questions] were straight from the MIT application,” Leber said.

Cecilia Leber (12) holds up a model of the protein that she studied this summer at Purdue University. photo courtesy of CECILIA LEBER

Leber ended up being one of the 10 percent of applicants who participated in the program. Throughout her research at Purdue, she learned in both a classroom and laboratory setting. While never having a typical day, she developed a scheduled routine. Before heading to lecture or lab at 8 a.m., Leber would head down to the local Starbucks to get her typical order: a venti caffè latte with six pumps of caramel syrup.

“Some days we would be in lecture, lab, lecture, lab, lunch and then more lab,” Leber said. “But on some days we would be in the lab all day.”

Once the day finished, Leber would head back to her dorm to change for dinner. However, this was not just a typical outing.

“When we got back to the dorms, we’d have this tradition where we have to dress nice for dinner,” Leber said. “So we’d change and wear nice clothes and then eat dinner at Earhart Hall.”

Dinner was not the end of the night. While they had already spent the entire day in either lectures or in the lab, the participants of the Summer Science Program still had a lot of work to complete.

“Some people would walk back to the Active Learning Center and go to the computer lab to work on our homework assignments,” Leber said. “Then we’d walk back at around 11 p.m. and come back to the Honors College Dorms. Depending on how much work we’d have, I’d either shower and go to sleep or spend time in the computer lab.”

Along with a project-filled week, Leber was able to have weekend excursions. Some were for the purpose of the program, such as Eli Lilly, Argonne National Lab and Cortella AgriScience. But others were to help the researchers have a bit of a brain break.

“We would also have fun field trips like Turkey Run and going to a water park in Indianapolis,” Leber said.

While there was an immense amount of work put into the program daily, Leber was still able to find ways to make new friends. The program included students from not only across the country, but also from around the world.

Leber and her fellow researchers enjoy scoops and shakes at the local ice cream shop. photo courtesy of CECILIA LEBER.

“There were people from all around the country and all around the globe,” Leber said. “My lab partner, he’s actually from India. There was a girl from Turkey, one from Canada. And then also people from around the country. A lot of people from California, someone from North Dakota. There was someone from Carmel there, and there were a couple of people from the NYC area, Boston and Vegas.”

When the participants weren’t working hard, they were playing harder. From jigsaw puzzles to a ping pong tournament that she got out in during the first round, Leber connected with her peers, even if it meant betrayal during a modified version of the game “Mafia.”

“We really got into ‘Werewolf,’ which is this modified version of ‘Mafia,’ ” Leber said. “It would get really intense. We’d just be screaming at each other.”

These games helped Leber to connect with the other members of the program. These connections eventually helped during their research. They helped to build bonds that would allow for open communication and collaboration during the research process.

“One of the things they really emphasized in the program is collaboration and asking each other for help, instead of the TAs,” Leber said. “It’s a lot about

learning how to learn from each other, and asking for help.”

Leber poses for a photo amongst pipet materials. photo courtesy of CECILIA LEBER

Even though the summer of 2019 has been gone for a month already, Leber felt like this program has prepared her in ways she had never thought before. For example, she discovered that her classes currently were nothing compared to the ones she took at Purdue.

“It makes high school seems so much easier,” Leber said. “One of the things I want to do is continuing on investigating this specific research with AP Research.”

Beyond the general ease of current classes, Leber felt like she was able to grow through not getting the results she wanted. Some days, she would spend an immense amount of time transferring numerous amounts of liquid into well plates. To her dismay, she found herself redoing her data collection.

“You really learn about failure because [of the] lab work,” Leber said.

In the end, Leber does not know what is going to happen with her research. Despite the uncertainty of the future of her work, she remains satisfied with her time at the Summer Science Program.

“The data we collected in labs was put in a data repository that’s associated with Purdue University, but our final papers can’t be published publicly yet,” Leber said. “I’m not sure if they’ll ever be, [but] it’s the experience that counts.”

Leber and her friends among the flowers at the Purdue Farmer’s Market. She frequently did fun activities with her peers when she was not in the lab or classroom. photo courtesy of CECILIA LEBER


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