About 20 kids garbed in lab coats, booties and goggles entered a laboratory on Friday through a door marked with a bright-red “BIOHAZARD” sticker.
Filling the small room, they gathered around lab coordinator and microbiologist Cindy Reichelderfer, who held up several petri dishes in which scientists had tested for the presence of anthrax.
The middle-schoolers were not in a science fiction movie, but rather touring Emergent BioSolutions’ facility in Gaithersburg as part of the Young Science Explorers Program.
The program — sponsored by the MDBio Foundation, MedImmune, Montgomery College and Towson University — is in its fifth year. It gives rising seventh- and eighth-graders the chance to explore different areas of science for a week in either Montgomery County or Baltimore. The activities include laboratory tours, hands-on experiments, and discussions with scientists and others working at science-based companies.
Thirteen-year-old Rachel Singer — who described herself as “hooked on everything scientific” — said she never had been inside laboratories like the ones she saw at Emergent BioSolutions and other companies before she joined the program.
“It’s awesome to be around people who like the same thing I do,” said Rachel, a rising eighth-grader at Pyle Middle School in Bethesda. She has her sights set on the biochemistry field.
The middle-schoolers from the Montgomery County area — most of whom are from Pyle, Germantown’s Neelsville and Gaithersburg this summer — had to apply to the program session based at Montgomery College’s Germantown campus.
In addition to tours at several county biotechnology companies, the weeklong session also included activities in the MDBio Foundation’s 45-foot tractor-trailer outfitted as a laboratory, in which students conducted experiments such as forensic work with enzymes.
Program director Tim Carter said middle-school students are at a “key age” when many decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
The hope, he said, is that the program plants the seed that motivates them to pursue the sciences in high school and college.
“Students learn and figure out things on their own,” Carter said of the program.
Kathy Michaelian — instructional dean for business/science/math/technology at Montgomery College’s Germantown campus — said the program seeks to encourage young students who might think that the science fields are not for them, too hard or not exciting.
“We’re hoping to turn them on to science,” she said.
The Montgomery County middle-schoolers continued their exploration on Friday as they toured Emergent BioSolutions’ facility to see what and who is behind the company’s work.
“I call this my playground or my sandbox,” said Jim Mullen, principal scientist in fermentation at Emergent BioSolutions, as he welcomed the kids into another laboratory.
“But I’m very serious about the way I play,” he added.
Mullen’s job involves growing bacteria to help develop vaccines, a process he explained to the onlooking students.
Sebastian Pichardo, 11, a rising seventh-grader at the German School Washington in Potomac, said he’s interested in becoming a chemist and will take both chemistry and physics courses in the upcoming school year.
“It was really fun,” Sebastian said of Friday’s tour. “I liked the most how the lady was showing us an experiment.”
With interests in biochemistry, microbiology, marine biology and aeronautics, 13-year-old Yeshayah Ben-Tsalmiel said his favorite part of the program was a trip to Black Hill Regional Park, where the students learned about water pollution.
For Yeshayah, the program was indeed a chance to explore.
“I hope to get a good understanding of areas of science I haven’t covered that well,” he said.