Vol. 7, No. 2
March 2015

Mentorships are stepping stones for students

A Student Mentorship project at the State Hygienic Laboratory that began in December helped Mallory Wills solidify her goal to become a science teacher.”"It was the first time I got to go see a professional lab and see how everything went together," said Mallory, 17, a senior at Central Lee High School in Donnellson. "It kind of reassured me that that's what I want to do, and that's the field I want to be in."

Central Lee High School senior Mallory Wills (foreground) works with Marinea Mehrhoff in the Rad Chem laboratory as part of the Student Mentorship Program.

With help from her mentor at the Coralville laboratory, Mallory is testing water samples to determine radon levels from wells of homes in Lee County. She is one of several students involved in this year's mentorship program, said Richard Bonar, who coordinates the program for the State Hygienic Lab.

Students must apply to participate and, if selected, are teamed with laboratory staff members who provide guidance and testing for science projects with a lab component.

"This year we had quite a few requests, more than in previous years," Bonar said, adding that enough funding to cover the expense of testing was available to add a few projects. "They send in their applications, and we pick the best fit."

The students benefit from the real-life lab experience and, in turn, the program helps develop the next generation of scientists.

"They don't just appear. They have to be 'grown,'" Bonar said of that future generation. "We kind of help them get on track."

Mallory's mentor, Marinea Mehrhoff, environmental laboratory supervisor at the Coralville lab, has mentored several students over the years, as well as serving as a science fair judge.

Mallory had previously tested radon levels in the air using test kits, but wanted to continue with radon levels in well water, which required a lab.

"I enjoy seeing kids interested in science and wanting to pursue it," Mehrhoff said. "I know it's important to our future."

Dennis Heimdal, environmental lab specialist at Lakeside Laboratory in Milford, echoed Mehrhoff's sentiments. "I find it to be another opportunity to talk to kids and teach them about the sciences," he said, noting that one of the first students he mentored decided to focus on water-related engineering in college after she went through the mentorship program.

One of the students Heimdal is mentoring this year, Laura Stowater, 14, an eighth-grader at Algona Middle School, said she became interested in water quality after her father suffered a water-borne illness while camping in Canada.

Her project objective is to determine what type of personal, portable, commercial water purification system makes water most potable for humans. According to tests conducted with help at Lakeside Lab, a pump system is the best, she said.

Besides science fairs, Laura is among students chosen to present their projects at the State Capitol in Des Moines, and said she is grateful for Heimdal's guidance.

"He's been so helpful," she said, noting that she would not have been able to test the water samples without the Lakeside Lab. "It's refined my project. It's a lot more polished."

Her science teacher, Megan Rasmussen, said both Luke McKenna, an Algona seventh-grader also being mentored by Heimdal, and Laura have received science fair accolades this year. Luke's project is to determine nitrogen levels in river, lake and well water.

Rasmussen said in addition to her visiting the lab, Heimdal has helped via email and phone with analysis and in understanding the results.

"I think it's really great," she said. "The kids get to experience real science — not just through a textbook — and to see how science works. It's a great opportunity."

Alicia Schiller, science teacher at Central Lee High School, agreed.

Schiller said both Lily Fuger, working with Coralville lab mentor, John Vargo, and Mallory have excelled in their projects. Lily, a 10th-grader, is continuing her studies of BPA (Bisphenol A) that she began previously with help from Vargo.

"They learn so many other skills from this opportunity," Schiller said, citing critical thinking and more. "It's such a great partnership, and I appreciate everything they do for the students."