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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

From extracting DNA to networking: Students consider STEM careers at Argonne’s Hispanic/Latino Education Outreach Day

High school students of Hispanic/Latino heritage visit Argonne for the first time to explore nuclear power and DNA, and also to network with scientists.

The students each chose just one strawberry and placed it delicately into their plastic bags. They then smooshed those bags until the strawberries were reduced to a red puree. But it wasn’t for a smoothie.

It was for their first experiment in a national laboratory. They were going to filter the juice, use professional instruments and extract the DNA.

Pulverizing the strawberries opened the nucleus of the cells that would help to release the DNA. The students followed sequencing specialist Stephanie Greenwald’s directions by using a dish soap-salt solution and then ethanol to coax the DNA out of its watery state. After following the process, the students discovered how the DNA finally separated into an ooze that looked, surprisingly, like snot. 

It was exciting, especially working with different things and how you can learn something new every day.” —  Angel Rojas

Angel Rojas said the strawberry experiment made him think about what it was like inside a laboratory every day. It was exciting, especially working with different things and how you can learn something new every day,” said Rojas.

They were among 37 students from the Little Village Lawndale High School Campus in Chicago, who saw firsthand how scientists and related professionals — many of Hispanic/Latino heritage — perform pivotal research and other work during the 17th annual Hispanic/Latino Education Outreach Day (HEOD) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. It was held Oct. 11 during National Hispanic Heritage Month. Besides participating in experiments, the students networked with scientists, toured facilities and listened to panel discussions about careers.

For nearly two decades, Argonne and one of its employee resource groups — the Argonne Hispanic/Latino Club, or AHLC ERG — have partnered with local schools in underserved populations to promote careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). At the forefront of this effort is the annual HEOD event that gives freshmen and sophomores a firsthand look inside one of the nation’s premier labs and helps them to envision new career opportunities.

This year’s HEOD marked the return of students to Argonne following last year’s virtual event. Besides learning how to extract strawberry DNA, the freshmen and sophomores also learned about supercomputers and supercomputing applications, nuclear and other energy sources, and received career insights and guidance on how to achieve a STEM career or related fields.

Jacari Williams said this first visit inside a national laboratory was very informative.”

The supercomputers were cool and showed how things were made,” Williams said, who plans to major in engineering or computer sciences in college.

Students from the Little Village Lawndale High School Campus learned about energy sources, DNA and STEM careers during Argonne’s Hispanic/Latino Education Outreach Day during National Hispanic Heritage Month. (Image by Mark Lopez/ Argonne National Laboratory.)

Christian Velazquez was fascinated by the nuclear reactors and nuclear energy areas.

We never talk about that in school. So, I was able to learn about the many ways that we get energy,” said Velazquez, who wants to apply for an internship at Argonne and encourage his friends to do it, too.

Students who have attended HEOD over the years have been enthusiastic and inquisitive, said Michael D. Kaminski, senior nuclear chemical engineer in Argonne’s Strategic Security Sciences division. Kaminski, who is of Mexican and Polish heritage, is president of AHLC ERG.

So, Kaminski wants to ensure these students get the information they need to succeed.

When I’ve gone to career days at local schools in the Latino communities, I rarely saw another Latino professional, and almost never saw another scientist, lawyer or accountant,” said Kaminski. The people who were going to career days are family members, and they are often blue collar like my parents and work in those vocations. So, we’re trying to gain more of a presence in these communities and at their events.”

There is an incredible number of intellectual capabilities that Argonne needs to tap in this group of students, said Kaminski.

We need their perspectives, and we need their innovation, if we want to be as best as we can be as a nation. We tell them that we want your face at Argonne. We want your ideas and your background to help us solve the most daunting problems that we face as a society,” said Kaminski.

HEOD can be a powerful experience for these young adults, said Jofrey Quintanar, sustainability project manager at Argonne’s Project Management Organization. He is also vice president of the AHLC ERG.

At this event, we can show these kids how they can explore and consider different career paths,” said Quintanar, a native of Mexico. When you talk to them, and ask: What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Their expectations are limited. They’ll say things like become a baseball player or a soccer player. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, at least, we are exposing them to other opportunities, because there is so much potential in these kids. They would be, no doubt, successful in a STEM career.”

Students from the Little Village Lawndale High School Campus learned how to extract DNA from a strawberry as part of Argonne’s Hispanic/Latino Education Outreach Day during National Hispanic Heritage Month. (Image by Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory.)

Laying such a vital foundation has been evident, judging by letters from teachers and students who were grateful for the HEOD experience. In 2021, the AHLC ERG received the Those Who Make a Difference Award from West Aurora School District 129.

Argonne aims to help these young people to overcome their fears and to inspire them, said Quintanar.

If I learned something from my humble beginnings, it was to be resilient and to adapt to change,” said Quintanar. Modern problems are too complex and cannot be solved by an individual, so always strive to be reliable and add value to your team.”

When HEOD started 17 years ago, many Hispanic/Latino students did not know that Argonne existed and that people just like them could be scientists and engineers working on projects of national and international interest, said Giselle Sandi, who was assistant chemist in the former Chemistry division and the HLC president at that time. She is now Operations Lead in the Chemical Sciences and Engineering division.

I remember one of the students who was fascinated with the Advanced Photon Source,” said Sandi. Years later, she wrote to me that she was pursuing a degree in physics, and it all started with that visit that we organized. I felt we accomplished our mission.”

Funding for HEOD is provided by the Argonne Leadership Institute, Office of Vice President for Research and National Laboratories at the University of Chicago and donations from MadMaxMar.

Also, AHLC ERG recently partnered with Wintrust Bank to create four new scholarships to high schools in communities where the bank has branches, including by the Little Village Lawndale High School Campus.  AHLC ERG hosts fundraisers for the scholarships.

Other AHLC ERG partners include MadMaxMar, El Ranchito, Atotonilco and other individual donations from Argonne employees. 

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.