SLAC summer programs encourage students to explore STEM careers

Proving that science can be fun, middle school students at the lab’s CORE Science Institute made giant soap bubbles to learn about thin film interference, which happens when light reflects off the two thin layers of soap film that form a bubble. (Jacqueline Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

The Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory welcomed more than 300 science enthusiasts this summer – from middle schoolers to physics graduate students – for camps, institutes and internships aimed at encouraging them to become part of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) community.

The youngest group – 18 students from Ile Omode, an African-centered middle school in Oakland – attended a week-long summer camp hosted by the Committee for Outreach, Recruitment & Engagement (CORE) Science Institute. The students learned about thin film interference from bubbles, coding and electronics from programming Arduino kits, electricity from a Van de Graaf generator and Newton’s laws of motion from playing basketball. They also learned the difference between science and engineering by taking apart old cell phones, and enjoyed the tasty results of a chemistry demonstration on how to make ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

CORE Science Institute students also worked in pairs to prepare and present a poster on one of these activities to a large cross section of SLAC employees. Camp organizer Margaux Lopez said she considers this poster session and the presentation skills it hones the most valuable part of the week.  

The second annual SLAC Accelerating Girl’s Engagement in STEM (SAGE-S) summer program introduced high school girls to the work and lifestyles of scientists and engineers at SLAC. The 40 participants came from 30 public high schools, traveling from as far away as Santa Rosa, Sacramento and Gilroy.

Over the course of a week, the students heard talks by scientists and engineers, worked on team science projects and shadowed SLAC professionals as they went about their work. The girls also attended a professional growth program to develop critical skills like effective communication, under the guidance of organizers Diana Gamzina and Giulia Lanza. This year, the SAGE-S executive committee added a “leadership styles” exercise that emphasized the need for diverse approaches to leadership.

But the SAGE-S camp wasn’t all work. The students also enjoyed evening activities like building spaghetti-marshmallow towers and duct tape wallets at their Stanford dorms and stargazing at the Stanford and Foothill observatories. These relaxed activities allowed participants to make friends with other students and with the SLAC scientists and engineers who joined in.

More than 120 undergraduate students got a deeper immersion in the SLAC research community as summer interns through five internship programs. They were guided by organizers Enrique Cuellar and Alan Fry and mentored by SLAC scientists, engineers and other professionals. Interns participating in the two programs that were funded by DOE also wrote papers and gave presentations on their research at the end of the summer. This year, about a third of all the interns were women.

Many of these undergraduates participated in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program, a DOE Office of Science-funded program that provides STEM research opportunities for students from both four-year and community colleges at 17 participating DOE laboratories and facilities. SLAC’s SULI interns also experienced life at Stanford by living in the dorms.

Another popular summer program, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) Internship program for undergraduates and graduate students, is funded by the LCLS Directorate at SLAC. These interns focused on hands-on laboratory, programming and data analysis projects for the LCLS and LCLS-II programs. They came from 26 colleges and universities, and many were from historically black colleges.

For community college students, the DOE Office of Science-funded Community College Internship (CCI) program provided housing on the Stanford campus and real-world technology experience at SLAC. Meanwhile, the STEM Core Community College program offered students from two local community colleges valuable experience as technicians and technologists at SLAC; the program was funded by Alameda County Workforce Development Corporation and facilitated by Growth Sector.

But what about those who dream of becoming STEM teachers rather than researchers? SLAC had that covered, too, with the STEM Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program, which is funded by Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo for students and alumni of California state universities and the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.

Based on past experience, you may meet some of these interns as long-term SLAC employees in the future.

Finally, as the summer nears its end, 120 physics graduate students and early-career scientists from all over the world just attended the SLAC Summer Institute (SSI). This year’s theme was the flavor physics associated with quarks, charged leptons and neutrinos. SSI participants attended lectures, topical conference talks and discussion sessions, did group projects and took tours. According to organizer Thomas Rizzo, the most requested team project used machine learning algorithms to identify electron and muon neutrino events in a liquid argon time projection chamber.

Participants also competed in a “wittiest answer to the question” contest, a highly competitive and long-standing tradition of SSI. This year the question was, “A discovery in the area of the Physics of Flavor could lead to the first clear signal of Beyond the Stanford Model physics. What will it be and how will it impact future developments in HEP?” The winning answer by Innes Bigaran predicted a detection of neutrinoless double beta decay that confirms the Majorana nature of neutrino mass and causes Ettore Majorana, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1938, to reappear to accept a Nobel Prize.

You can find more information about SLAC’s educational and internship programs at

For questions or comments, contact the SLAC Office of Communications at

This is a reposting of my news feature, courtesy of Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Center.

Build-your-own robot can tackle biology and chemistry experiments

Building off-the-shelf Lego robots can teach kids important skills like mechanical engineering, computer programming and teamwork. Now, Stanford bioengineers are adding life sciences and chemistry to the list.

Stanford researchers have developed a liquid-handling Lego robot capable of a range of experiments — integrating robotics, biology, chemistry, programming and hands-on learning into a single, open-source educational tool. Built from a cheap plastic syringe and a Lego Mindstorm EV3 Education kit, the robots are designed to pipette fluids into and out of plastic containers commonly used in laboratories.

The team also designed and tested several fundamental experiments for elementary and middle school students using their DIY robots and common household items like food coloring, salt or sugar, which are described in a recent paper published in PLOS Biology.

One of the favorites is an experiment that teaches kids about density and buoyancy by sequentially layering colored liquids with different salt concentrations into a single test tube — demonstrating that the liquids float on top of each other instead of mixing, and explaining why objects float or sink.

“We would love it if more students, do-it-yourself learners, STEM teachers and researchers would embrace this type of work, get excited and then develop additional open-source instructions and lesson plans for others to use,” said Ingmar Riedel-Krus. PhD, assistant professor of bioengineering, in a recent news release.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Too few woman scientists are invited to review academic journal manuscripts

Photo by Slawek Borewicz
Photo by Slawek Borewicz

As a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I reviewed manuscripts for several academic science journals and acted as an editor for an engineering journal.

This makes me an exception, according to a commentary recently published in Nature that reveals a gender bias in the review of scholarly publications. Journals invite too few women to referee, write commentary authors Jory Lerback, a graduate student at the University of Utah, and Brooks Hanson, PhD, director of publications at the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The peer review process plays a critical role in the validation of research by allowing experts to scrutinize the work of their peers before research results are published. Participating in this review process is also critical to a scientist’s career. The commentary explains:

“Participation as a reviewer for papers and grants has many benefits, particularly for early-career scientists. It is a chance to develop a relationship and make a positive impression with an editor, review-panel member or programme manager, who are typically senior scientists and are in turn likely to be involved in evaluating the reviewer’s future papers and grants.”

Unfortunately, Lerback and Hanson found that women of all ages have fewer opportunities to act as a reviewer for AGU journals.

Using membership and editorial databases, they identified the age and gender of authors, reviewers and editors for AGU manuscripts from 2012 to 2015 — creating a dataset that included more than 24,000 authors, nearly 15,000 reviewers, nearly 100,00 reviewer suggestions by authors and 119,000 reviewer requests by editors.

Analysis of this dataset showed that only 20 percent of reviewers were women, proportionally less than expected as 28 percent of AGU members were female and 27 percent of first authors were female. This difference was observed across all ages, so it was not due to editors seeking more senior reviewers who are predominantly male.

The problem, they found, was due to a gender bias in reviewer selection. At AGU, authors suggest reviewers at submission and editors prepare a final list. However, both authors and editors nominated fewer women to review. Female first authors suggested female reviewers 21 percent of the time, whereas male first authors suggested women just 15 percent of the time. Similarly, female editors recommended female reviewers 22 percent of the time compared to 17 percent for male editors.

Is this just a problem for AGU journals? The authors don’t think so. As the largest Earth and space science society and publisher, they argue that AGU is a good proxy for STEM demographics in the United States. In addition, they suggest that similar problems exist for funding agencies.

The researchers recommend that publishers hire more female editors and train their staff to combat this gender bias.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Stanford medical student co-authors guidebook for aspiring science students

Photograph courtesy of James Pan
Photograph courtesy of James Pan

Academic hurdles in college stymie many budding doctors, engineers and researchers: More than half of all college students who enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields change their majors or drop out.

As an undergraduate, Yoo Jung Kim — now a first-year Stanford medical student — and three colleagues at the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science observed this attrition first hand and decided to do something about it. Together, they wrote a practical guide for aspiring science students, providing insider advice on topics ranging from how to pick a major to how to start a research project. Kim told me about her new book, What Every Science Student Should Know, in recent emails:

What inspired you to write this guide for science students?

“In November 2011, the New York Times published an article titled, Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard). At that time, all of us had seen friends struggle with their science classes; some of our peers had even been discouraged enough to change their majors. This article confirmed to us that the problems with STEM education were a nationwide phenomenon and we felt like we already had some of the solutions.

We started interviewing highly successful science students at Dartmouth and other colleges throughout the country to see what they were doing differently. From there we distilled those observations into sample chapters that we pitched to literary agencies and publishers. Too many college students planning to study science and medicine change their minds later in their academic careers. Many of these students slip through the cracks in massive lecture‐based classes where they don’t necessarily get much advice or attention. We feel that our book could provide the guidance that most students need.”

Who is your target audience?

“We wrote this book primarily as a resource for early college students and ambitious junior and senior high school students interested in the sciences. However, its content can benefit anyone from a high school freshman to a recent college graduate. Our book covers ways in which students can improve their study skills, master their courses, find mentors who can guide them, conduct scientific research and prepare for their future careers.

Our hope is that readers will find the book to be a pretty comprehensive guide to their life as a science student, as well as their transition from college to the outside world. The book draws on interviews with a full spectrum of different science majors, winners of national scholarships like the Rhodes, founders of startups, researchers, and more — to give a broad overview of where science can take you.”

How did you find time to write a book during college?

“By the time we had secured a publishing contract, most of us had graduated from college already. We were literally dispersed throughout the world — Beijing, Michigan, and New Hampshire — so we held Skype meetings every two weeks. We kept to a tight schedule based on an outline we had come up with early on in development. As for myself, Dartmouth College let me work on the book for academic credit as part of an independent writing project during my senior year. We all spent many nights and weekends writing the manuscript over the course of a few years time.”

Are you planning to write any more books?

“Yes! There are a couple of subjects that I’ve been wanting to pursue, but the biggest problem is finding the time, especially since medical school is already a full‐time endeavor. In the future, I want to write a book that showcases scientific research as a human endeavor filled with setbacks and triumphs.”

What advice do you want to pass on to new college students?

“Don’t get overly discouraged by a bad grade in a science class. Throughout the country, science classes tend to give students lower grades than classes in other subjects. A bad grade is not necessarily a reflection of your work ethic or aptitude for science.

By the end of my sophomore year, I had racked up several Bs and B minuses in college science courses. I wondered whether I’d be able to get into any medical school, let alone Stanford. Fortunately, I found mentors at Dartmouth who helped me regain my confidence: physician mentors who helped me prioritize my time and upperclassman who shared their study tips and cheered me on. Starting in junior year, I aced all of my courses. I asked the upperclassmen that helped me to succeed — Justin Bauer, Andrew Zureick and Daniel Lee — to join me in writing our book, so that everyone could have the mentorship experience that I had been lucky enough to receive.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.