Newswise — Seven Chicago-area high school students participating in a half-year mentorship program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory won gold medals for their research at the 2024 DuPage County Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technology and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) competition.

Since 2013, Argonne employees have mentored 207 African American high school students in the Chicago area as part of the Argonne ACT-SO High School Research Program. The program pairs high school students with an Argonne mentor for a period of six months, in which students learn to conduct college-level scientific research in an area of their choosing.

The Argonne ACT-SO High School Research Program is managed by the Argonne African American Employee Resource Group (AAA-ERG). ​“The goal of the Argonne ACT-SO program is to inspire Black and African American students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM),” said former AAA-ERG president Justin H. S. Breaux. 

“We strive for the research projects to be student-driven,” said ACT-SO High School Research Program co-manager Jeffrey Larson. ​“We seek to have students iterate to produce a properly scoped research question that they can tackle, with support from an Argonne mentor.”

Upon completing their research projects, students can compete at the regional ACT-SO competition. Students who win gold at the regional competition have the option of competing at the national ACT-SO competition, being held this year in Las Vegas.

The students who received gold medals at the regional competition were: 

  • Jaden Blankenship (biology/microbiology) – mentored by Tugba Isik (Argonne) and Richard Minshall (UIC).
  • Chandler Brady (chemistry/biochemistry) – mentored by Archit Vasan (Argonne).
  • Rena Haile (computer science) – mentored by Eva Allen (Argonne).
  • Brandon Davis (earth and space science) – mentored by Lori Huntoon (Fermilab).
  • Amala Agwuncha (engineering) – mentored by Zach Hood (Argonne).
  • Myles Harrington (mathematics) – mentored by Ryan Kim (Florida State University).
  • Eddie Mason (medicine and health) – mentored by Phay Ho (Argonne).

Many of the students in the program praised the opportunities afforded to them to pursue real-world scientific research. ​“One of my favorite things was going to the lab with my mentor,” Agwuncha said. ​“I never had previous experience in an actual science lab, so being able to do various experiments and getting hands-on experience with my mentor was truly inspiring. I was able to get my feet wet in real science, and it makes me want to pursue STEM in the future.”

Blankenship explained that by being able to build relationships both among students and between students and mentors, ACT-SO provided an opportunity for students to build on their strengths. ​“The community at ACT-SO sets it apart,” he said. ​“Not only are you able to be paired with a mentor who has similar interests to you, you’re also able to have a community of people who help you to push yourself. They encourage you to work together; there’s a community of us pushing one another to be better.”

Thomas Reed, chairperson of the DuPage County ACT-SO program, said that the competition and research program helped the students to develop ​“soft skills” that will serve them well as they prepare for college. ​“The ACT-SO/Argonne partnership provides our students with confidence,” he said. ​“The research experience gives the students confidence in themselves and confidence they can work on hard topics. They are also becoming critical thinkers who look at the facts and make decisions based on the facts.”

Larson agreed with Reed’s assessment. ​“These students are building the fundamental skills and experience to succeed in scientific environments in college,” he said.

Lori Huntoon, an environmental scientist at DOE’s Fermilab, described how her decision to become a mentor through the program enriched her own research. ​“I have learned as much or more than they have learned from me as a mentor,” she said. ​“It is just so invigorating to work with really motivated enthusiastic high school students, and it really gives me incredible hope for our future when I see the young minds that are coming out of school these days.”

Since 2016, students in the Argonne ACT-SO High School Research Program have won 18 gold, 11 silver and five bronze medals at the national competition.

ACT-SO is a community-based program founded in 1978 by author and journalist Vernon Jarrett.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology by conducting leading-edge basic and applied research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.