Vol. 6, No. 3
Mar. 2014

Young scientists receive mentorship award

Budding scientists are gaining extra insight into their projects with help from mentors at the State Hygienic Laboratory.

Ninth-grader Lily Fuger, 15, of Central Lee High School in Donnellson and eighth-graders Aaron Wills, 14, and Isaac Moeller, 13, both of Central Lee Middle School, teamed with lab scientists through the Student Mentorship Program.

Hygienic Laboratory staff members work with students and teachers in the program to provide guidance and testing for science projects that have a laboratory component. Previous projects have included testing for pesticides in plant roots, measuring the level of bacteria on doorknobs and studying the difference between the germs in a dog's mouth and those in humans.

Lily Fuger, shown here in the Environmental Health Division of the Hygienic Lab, has been researching Bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic drinking bottles since she was in sixth grade. Now a ninth-grader, Fuger is working on phase five of her research, which earned her a Student Mentorship award from the State Hygienic Laboratory.

"Having that expertise just added to the depth of their knowledge," said Kyle Van Ausdall, a Central Lee High School teacher and Middle School Science Fair Advisor.

Lily studied environmental exposures to Bisphenol A in plastic containers for her project, a continuation of research she has conducted since she was in sixth grade.

This year, having environmental lab scientist John Vargo, Ph.D., on board as her mentor, she was able to conduct more specific tests at various temperatures.

"He's allowed my project to step up to the next level," Lily said, citing her visit to the Coralville site as an important step in her research. "That's why I was excited to work with the lab."

Alicia Schiller, Lily's science teacher and her advisor for the Science Club, accompanied Lily to the lab. "It's such an amazing facility," Schiller said.

Aaron and Isaac were similarly impressed with their visit to the lab.

"It was cool to see how the process worked," Aaron said.

The two studied nitrates in well water for their project, an undertaking that involved sampling water from 44 wells.

Working with environmental lab specialist John Kempf as their mentor, the team found that lower levels of nitrates were present in deeper wells. The findings have important health implications for expectant mothers, as well as infants, the two said.

Isaac noted that Kempf helped the two refine their wording and encouraged them to add a second graph for a trend line.

Aaron said their mentor also helped them prepare for the questions judges might ask at the science fair.

The Hygienic Lab's Student Mentorship Program gives young Iowans such as Moeller (left) and Wills an opportunity to observe laboratory scientists like Cindy Rieflin (right) at work. This learning opportunity is supported by our mentor and environmental lab specialist John Kempf (background, left) and Central Lee High School teacher Kyle Van Ausdall.

The extra work paid off. Aaron and Isaac have won blue ribbons at the fairs they have entered and qualified for the state science fair in Ames.

Isaac is considering a career in sports management, while Aaron hopes to go into the medical or engineering field.

Lily is undecided on her future career, but the tests have changed her way of life. At track practice she uses a glass bottle, rather than plastic, after her project showed that traces of Bisphenol A, a chemical used in plastics that has been linked to health issues, are found in low levels in some bottles that are said to be BPA-free.

Lily has won high honors at the fairs she has entered and will also be going to the state science fair.

"It was a really great experience," she said of the mentorship program. "It gave me the chance to experience what working in a real lab is like."