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Drs. Alan Tonelli and Melissa Pasquinelli Mentor Project SEED High School Students Each Summer

SEED student working in lab
SEED student working in lab

Written by: Caroline Ellington, ABM Textile Engineering Student

Two professors in the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science are making immeasurable impacts in the lives of local high school students this summer. Dr. Melissa Pasquinelli, of Textile Engineering, and Dr. Alan Tonelli, of Polymer and Color Chemistry, are both mentoring high school students for the summer through NC Project SEED, a social action initiative of the American Chemical Society. SEED stands for “Summer Experiences for the Economically Disadvantaged,” and true to its name, Project SEED seeks high performing high school students from low income households who are interested in having the opportunity to do research under a mentor faculty member at a participating research institution. Interested rising juniors and seniors must have one year of chemistry and apply to be placed in a research internship position. Once selected, the student receives a stipend for the duration of their research project; which is usually six to ten weeks in the summer months.

Drs. Tonelli and Pasquinelli are both active members in their regional chapter of the American Chemical Society and have been involved with Project SEED for many years; Dr. Pasquinelli for seven and Dr. Tonelli for twenty. They both see priceless value in the program and are passionate about mentoring the next generation of scientists by hosting students in their labs during the summer. Drs. Tonelli and Pasquinelli can truly speak to the value of having a supportive mentor, as they were each the first of their families to go to college. The same will be true for many Project SEED participants since only students coming from families below a certain income level are eligible for the program. In Dr. Pasquinelli’s eyes, SEED is particularly valuable for such students, because it gives them the opportunity to be exposed to what collegiate level research is like.

“For these students, coming in and completing a project with a written report and presentation is really valuable,” said Pasquinelli. “For me, the goal is to leave the students with a memorable experience that also boosts their confidence and gives them a positive outlook toward STEM fields. The actual work the student does is just a stepping stone for them to build character and gain unique experience through this program.”

Dr. Pasquinelli emphasized the importance of teaching students critical thinking, problem solving, and presentation skills during the internship. Those are invaluable skills that will benefit the student in the future, no matter what direction they choose to go in. As high school students, most SEED participants are unfamiliar with the caliber of academic research they are exposed to during the program. The exposure they gain to new scientific thoughts and processes is an intangible quality that sets them apart as they work through the college application process. This summer, Dr. Pasquinelli’s SEED student was working with her team of graduate and undergraduate students on a brand new project that dealt with predicting toxicity of flame retardants.

Dr. Tonelli is mentoring his student, Miles, for the second summer this year. Miles is a rising senior at Millbrook High School in Raleigh and admitted that he was not initially wild about chemistry or the idea of doing research in a hands-on lab. The project Dr. Tonelli and Miles are working on, alongside a team of graduate students in Dr. Tonelli’s lab, has to do with the fundamental behavior of polymers. The purpose of the research is to determine how different molecular structural aspects of polymers dictate the glass transition or softening temperatures. The polymers Miles and Dr. Tonelli are working with are amorphous polyesters and polyamides.

“At first, it was sort of difficult to grasp; especially since I was unfamiliar with polymers,” remarked Miles on the project. “But over this year and last year, I have really come to appreciate and enjoy learning about these molecules and the research process.”  Miles’ work, “Probing the Bases of Polymer Grass Transitions,” has earned several awards:  1st place, 2013 North Carolina Student Academy of Science District 3A Competition; 3rd place, High School Student Category, SERMACS 2012; 3rd place, 2013 North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair Regional (Region 3) Competition, High School Chemistry Division.

Both Dr. Tonelli and Dr. Pasquinelli commented on the importance of spending a lot of one-on-one time with their students; pointing out how it is not only more beneficial for the student to interact directly with their mentor rather than just graduate students, but that the faculty benefit from the interaction as well and the experience becomes more meaningful for both parties. At the conclusion of the research project, the SEED students will present their research at a symposium where they will be expected to dress professionally and know their topic thoroughly.

As his SEED experience comes to an end, Miles is looking forward to attending college next year. He is considering top notch schools and is optimistic about receiving scholarships that will cover his education. In the past, other SEED students from Millbrook have gone to universities such as Harvard, Wake Forest, and Winston-Salem State. Last year, twenty-two SEED graduating seniors had received over $8.2 Million in scholarships as they headed to college. NC Project SEED and the American Chemical Society provide participating students with concrete things, such as hands-on research experience in a lab, but most would probably say that the intangibles are far more valuable; a lifelong mentor and a bright future unhindered by an all too familiar financial burden.