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High school students stand around a microscope in a lab wearing lab coats.

Breaking down barriers to a future in science

By Tom Henderson

Microbiology graduate student Savanah Leidholt understands the importance of diversity.

As an undergraduate at Montana State University-Bozeman, Leidholt was a McNair Scholar, a program funded through the U.S. Department of Education to increase graduate degree awards for students from first- generation or underrepresented segments of society.

You could say the program had an impact: Leidholt joined Rebecca Vega Thurber’s lab as an incoming Ph.D. student in 2019.

Now, she is helping to create similar opportunities for other young people. Just as microbial diversity is fundamental to the maintenance and conservation of global genetic resources, academic diversity is equally important, Leidholt said.

“As a Hispanic woman who grew up in rural Montana, I can attest firsthand to the lack of STEM opportunities available for these demographics,” she said.

This past summer, Leidholt set out to create a summer “bootcamp” for area high school students to draw more students from BIPOC, LGBTQ+, low-income and other diverse backgrounds to the study of microbiology.

High school students stand on a beach looking at a man in a red shirt holding an organism.

High school students listen to a mentor discuss aquatic microbiology.

For one week, Leidholt led 20 local high school students through the Pernot Microbiology Camp. The immersion camp, funded by Rebecca Vega Thurber, introduced students to microbiology disciplines such as agricultural, food, medicinal and marine science.

The students learned how to use pipettes, the small glass or plastic tubes used in labs. They also collected cheek cell swabs, extracted DNA from potato salads, toured Corvallis’ wastewater facility and applied microbiology to arts and crafts.

The program was named after and funded in part by Vega Thurber’s endowed position in the department. Vega Thurber is the Emile F. Pernot Distinguished Professor in the microbiology department, a three-year professorship named after Oregon State University’s first bacteriologist and one of the founders of the Department of Microbiology at OSU.

“I know from my time as a McNair Scholar in undergraduate school that targeted programs such as the Pernot Microbiology camp can foster self-confidence in the sciences and increased interest in pursuing a career in STEM,” she added.

Participating students were primarily incoming juniors and seniors from Linn-Benton County and represented a variety of backgrounds in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and family income.

“I’m changing my major from general biology to microbiology when I go to orientation,” said a high school senior heading to the University of Oregon in the fall.

“I definitely am keeping my education path open to unplanned opportunities especially in regards to the field of microbiology,” another student said in a survey after the camp.

Students taking part in the Pernot Microbiology Camp.

High school students work on fish rubs during the Pernot Microbiology Camp.

Leidholt said many of the students were able to attend because the microbiology department provided transportation.

“Undergraduate student Ellie Boryer and I did extensive research into similar STEM camps,” she said. “We found that the biggest inhibitors for students of color were transportation and financial costs. We chose to eliminate both by providing a ride to and from the camp as well as giving stipends to all targeted students.”

Several members of the microbiology department volunteered to not only transport the students, but also act as mentors to guide students through daily lab exercises, field trips and other activities.

Students are introduced to the diversity of the microbial world, learning how some microbes shape Earth’s habitability while others are used to ferment food and beverages.

They practiced how to probe microbial communities using cultivation- dependent techniques such as plate streaking as well as cultivation- independent techniques such as genome sequencing.

Volunteers at Oregon State University and Corvallis’ wastewater treatment plant showed students how these techniques are used daily in meat- processing facilities, medical labs and aquatic research labs.

Students were familiarized with microbiology and the wide range of potential career paths possible with a microbiology degree.

Whether the students ultimately major in microbiology or not, Leidholt said the camp succeeded in making microbiology more accessible and inclusive.

“This camp aimed to give students an opportunity to learn about the wide field of microbiology through a lived experience,” said Rebecca Vega Thurber. “We eliminated many financial, logistical and conceptual barriers young students (particularly students of color) face by providing transportation and student stipends.”

On a table sits black outlines of fish prints on white paper.

Student's fish prints sit on a table to dry during the Pernot Microbiology Camp.

Vega Thurber credits the success of the STEM bootcamp to the hard work of the volunteers as well as the financial support she receives through the Pernot Fund, the microbiology department and other donors, such as $3K they received from the Marine Studies Award Initiative at OSU.

“These early experiential learning programs can make a huge difference in the lives of early career scientists,” Vega Thurber said. “I’m looking forward to continuing and ideally expanding the program in the future.”

Several students expressed that they found the experience life-changing.

“I would love to get a master’s or even doctorate degree in microbiology, whether that is while I am in med school or completely change my career path to just wanting to work as a full-time microbiologist,” said one such student.

“After this camp, a career as a researcher in microbiology seems more appealing than ever.”

“I am definitely more interested and educated about the options that I can pursue with science, so I think I am more likely to try something with a science degree,” said the student.