Open Labs members share love of science with high school students

As first-year graduate student in astrophysics Darryl Seligman worked through a problem set late one night, he received an email from a high school student.

Needing a break, he opened it and was confronted with a series of complex equations about exoplanet transits. Excitedly, he called Zlatko Minev, a fifth-year graduate student in applied physics, telling him, “My students are awesome!”

Seligman and Minev are members of Open Labs, a fellowship of graduate and professional students devoted to encouraging young scholars to pursue careers in the sciences. Minev created the organization in 2012 because he wanted to share his passion for science with high school students. The group’s name reflects Minev’s desire to make science accessible to high school students by providing tours to show them what a “real” lab looks like.

“I knew how impactful it had been for me when I was in high school to have role models — young scientists at the University of California-Berkeley — to show me that I can do this,” Minev explained. “And also to show me what there is to be excited about at the cutting edge of science and the forefront of knowledge today, the kind of things I can’t read in my textbooks for the next 20 years.”

Teaming up with Maria Parente, coordinator of community programs in science at the Office of New Haven and State Affairs (ONHSA), and Claudia Merson, director of public school partnerships at ONHSA, Minev was able to gather a group of six graduate students for the inaugural Science Café during the summer of 2012. The flagship events for Open Labs, Science Cafés are “casual evenings of entertainment with popular science talks based on the research experience of us, the graduate students,” Minev said. Over 50 students came to the first session, and a second quickly followed later that summer.

Science Cafés are similar in format to TED Talks, but with a focus on how students can get involved in the sciences. “For us, these talks are like a gateway for the students: We show them the information and say what is cutting edge but also emphasize that they themselves can do this,” explains Minev.

As more high school students became interested in the program, Minev recruited more graduate students to present their work, primarily through the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS). Seligman, who joined last semester after Minev asked at a GPSS meeting if anyone was interested in doing outreach, said he also knew how important role models can be in shaping a student’s interest in science.

After the last Science Café in November, two high school students stayed behind talking with Seligman about exoplanet transits. The students needed to find a mentor for a science project they were working on, and Seligman volunteered to take on that role.

“I just think back to when I was in high school and [know that] if I had an experience [with a mentor] like that, I would be miles ahead of where I am now,” he explained.

A student listens intently at the last Science Café in November. (Photo courtesy of Open Labs)That Science Café, Minev noted, was evidence of the program’s growing popularity: Seeking around 40 high school participants, they had 164 students register for the event. The group had to waitlist about 50 students due to a lack of resources, a recurring issue for the group.

Open Labs currently receives all of its funding at Yale from GPSS, but more recently Minev began searching for alternative sources of funding. The group applied for external grants from NASA, the American Physical Society, and other foundations. In December, Open Labs received a “generous” donation in honor of applied physics graduate student Yehan Liu — a sum equivalent to its entire operating budget for the last four years.

With the increased funding, Minev hopes Open Labs will be able to host more events, but he is committed to keeping them small and intimate to allow for conversation. For example, Minev said, the female graduate students often get asked by high school students if they are able to have a career in the sciences and a boyfriend at the same time.

“You’re not going to ask that in a big lecture, so it’s important to keep the events small and intimate,” explained Seligman. Minev agreed, saying, “We don’t want to have too many people because it’s difficult then to get this connection between the students and the speakers. But we also want to increase the resources and where each event can take you. Darryl’s [mentoring] example shows that you can set up these mentoring relationships and maybe also provide funding for projects in the future.”

Open Labs uploads all the talks to the group’s website. Minev hopes the additional funding will also allow the group to hire a videographer and website designer to create an online portal where high school students could learn about their specific field of interest and connect with a graduate student in that field.

“To me, our message is that you are able to do science as a high schooler,” said Seligman. “We want to show the high school students who scientists are and show them what it’s like to be an astronomer or physicist — [that] you’re not just some person in a lab coat tucked away in the corner.”

As the Yale group continues to expand, Minev and Seligman said, they are hearing from friends who are interested in bringing Open Labs to their own universities. Chapters of Open Labs have already been established at the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and, most recently, Columbia. Eventually, Minev hopes to be able to collaborate with the different chapters and bring students from other campuses to Yale and vice-versa, always with the intention of spreading the group’s love for science.

“Seeing the kids engaged and motivated after the events is really rewarding,” he said. “The graduate students also leave at the end very inspired and feeling that we made a difference. It motivates us to do better research and to communicate it better to these students.”

The next Science Café will be held on Saturday, April 10 from 2:30 to 4 p.m. at Kroon Hall, 195 Prospect St. For more information about upcoming events, visit the Open Labs website.