Skip to main content
Students in lab coats pose for a group photo.

Pernot Microbiology Camp seeks support to sustain STEM opportunities

By Hannah Ashton

When an autistic high-school student meets an autistic science mentor, a whole new world of possibilities opens. When a shy high-school student is encouraged to embrace curiosity and ask questions, their path to college gets easier to navigate. And when an underrepresented high-school student is given a scholarship to attend a microbiology STEM camp, it can change their world.

The Pernot Microbiology camp, held by the Department of Microbiology on the OSU Corvallis campus, is a transformative, once-in-a-lifetime summer experience for historically underrepresented or underserved high school students aspiring toward STEM careers.

Growing up as a low-income Hispanic person in rural Montana, camp creator and past director Savanah Leidholt (‘22-23) witnessed the lack of STEM opportunities for youth in these demographics and decided to take action after becoming a graduate student at Oregon State. She created a week-long immersive science camp, where a younger version of herself would have thrived.

LGBTQ+, women, BIPOC, low-income and other students from diverse backgrounds are welcomed into a safe space to explore microbiology. Students learn about three subfields of the discipline, including Food System Science, Human Health and Disease, and Aquatic Microbiology. Participants conduct microbiology-focused lab experiments, go on field trips and hear from diverse speakers about career avenues and opportunities in STEM.

“Even their ability to ask questions grows. I know it's difficult to ask questions but by the end of the camp, these students are conversing with us and just ready to ask questions and learn."

In the first year of the camp, held in 2022, 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 salad, toured Corvallis’ wastewater facility and applied microbiology to arts and crafts.

“This camp gives students a safe space to be curious, grow their confidence, work with their peers and find out what they like and don’t like,” said microbiology graduate student Sunni Patton, the new camp director. “It provides experiential learning opportunities for students who would otherwise not be able to participate.”

Most students don’t experience a microbiology lab until college. The Pernot camp allows them to see more career avenues. “It’s a way to open new interests and hobbies. A way to expand, open doors and make friends,” wrote one student who said they would recommend the camp to their friends.

"I liked that one of the mentors is autistic; it makes me feel welcomed as someone with autism,” wrote another student.

Students participate in the Pernot Microbiology camp.

High-school students get hands-on experience in a laboratory during the 2023 Pernot Microbiology Camp.

The skills participants learn extend beyond the sciences. “Even their ability to ask questions grows. I know it's difficult to ask questions but by the end of the camp, these students are conversing with us and just ready to ask questions and learn,” said Patton.

The camp was created to remove barriers for students to experience a new side of science. Not the traditional stereotypical image of a scientist, but diverse individuals who collaborate, work in the field and are passionate about their research.

Scholarships distinguish the camp. Out of 20 students, 15 students have received scholarships in each of the past two years.

The camp is organized through STEM Academy, an OSU program that engages K-12 youth in programs designed to increase college attendance and participation in STEM fields. “Their baseline for a week of camp is $300. That’s not a reasonable expense some students or their parents can justify during summer months,” Leidholt said.

Because one of their main sources of funding is running out this year, camp leadership is working hard to fundraise to continue offering scholarships that cover the cost of attendance and transportation.

“This camp costs $20,000 to put on because of all of the scholarships that we built in to make it more accessible. Right now, we have a quarter of that,” Leidholt said. “Without support on Dam Proud Day, we’re going to have to find ways to cut costs, and that would most likely be coming out of the amount of scholarships we give out. And that, in itself, is not what we stand for.”

Students in lab coats pose for a picture.

Students post for a picture during a lab activity during the 2023 Pernot Microbiology Camp.

Patton and Leidholt pour their hearts and souls into creating something magical each summer. “The first year, from January until July, this was a part-time job for me. I’m a full-time graduate student, but I was taking on at least 15 to 20 extra hours a week planning every component of the camp,” Leidholt said.

She watched her efforts blossom into something she never imagined.

“I just feel so excited and hopeful of where this camp is going because I see the effort that our department, the College of Science and individual graduate students like Sunni are taking. They ensure this is a lasting camp, not a one-and-done,” she said.

One student memory sticks out in her brain from last year’s camp, and it highlights just how powerful the experience can be.

“I planned a game of Jeopardy and I had made the questions fairly easy in case students retained less from the beginning of the week,” Leidholt said. “They were all so mad at me and giving me so much shade because they said ‘The questions are too easy.’ It was a nice moment for me because we had a good rapport for them to tell me. I also felt pride because they remembered above and beyond what we expected them to.”

The Pernot Microbiology Camp is an investment in the future of STEM, a testament to the power of diversity of science, and a place for students with stories yet to unfold.

For more information about the camp, check out their website and this IMPACT article.

High-school students stand around tanks at Hatfield Marine Center.

Pernot Microbiology Camp participants learn about aquatic microbiology during a field trip to Newport.