Biochemistry Labs, Staff Mentor High School Youth Apprentices

Christian Collin, a recent Youth Apprentice in the Department of Biochemistry's information technology office.

Jenna Amro is a productive member of a scientific research laboratory in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She can pipet, accurately measure scientific compounds, make agar plates that cells can grow on, properly put the cells on the plates, manage data, sterilize equipment in the autoclave, complete projects on DNA mutations, and more — and she only just finished high school.

Wisconsin is full of bright young minds like Amro’s, and UW–Madison is committed to helping keep that homegrown talent here at home through the Wisconsin Idea. With a thriving research and development sector in the state, the Department of Biochemistry is happy to get high school students acquainted with a Wisconsin-based career in science and technology through the Youth Apprenticeship Program.

Through parallel programs run by the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Dane County School Consortium, the initiatives place high school students in careers they are interested in for academic credit. Both programs are administered by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. Over roughly 20 years, the department has hosted approximately 35 youth apprentices. The University of Wisconsin–Madison as a whole has mentored roughly 136 over about that same time period in different areas across campus.

Jenna Amro, a high school student from Madison, has been an Youth? Apprentice in the lab of biochemistry professor and chair Brian Fox
Jenna Amro, a high school student from Madison, has been an Youth Apprentice in the lab of biochemistry professor and chair Brian Fox. She recently graduated high school and will be attending college in Wisconsin. Photo by Robin Davies

Students can be involved in many fields, such as agriculture, information technology, marketing, manufacturing, transportation, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), among many others. In the Department of Biochemistry, the students are mentored by graduate students or faculty to become valuable lab members. Amro works in the lab of Brian Fox and is mentored by graduate student Evan Glasgow.

“Being a part of the YA program, some of the opportunities I’ve been given are to work in a lab at the UW and perfect my skills as a scientist, as well as learning how to keep track of the work I do,” says Amro, who just graduated and is headed to college in Wisconsin in the fall. “I would tell anybody considering to participate in a YA program to do it. It’s a very good program and it’s taught me a lot. It can be challenging but it’s well worth it.”

It’s not just the young students who benefit from their experience. The employers — in this case the faculty’s laboratory — also get a lot out of having a youth apprentice. Glasgow says having an apprenticeship has given him experience in teaching and communicating science and that Amro has also contributed to a breakthrough in his research.

“Having a YA in the lab offers unique insight that we as more experienced lab members sometimes miss out on,” he explains. “She has an approach that is unique. It’s been enriching to have her here. Just because someone is new to the field doesn’t mean they can’t make a contribution.”

However, the opportunities don’t end with research or the lab. Units across campus, like Biochemistry, have a wide variety of administrative, communications, design, and information technology needs that also serve as a resource for students in the program. For example, Christian Collin (pictured at top) is an apprentice in information technology for the department. Collin just graduated high school and will start a degree at UW–Madison in the fall. His mentor is information processing consultant Conor Klecker, who himself was a youth apprentice in 2000.

“When deciding to take on an apprentice, there was a bit of a ‘I want to give back to the program that helped me’ feeling, but it really is a more of a ‘training the type of worker I want to hire’ attitude,” Klecker says. “Now that I am fortunate enough to work at a place that encourages teaching on the job, I am enjoying the teaching aspect of mentoring as well.”

Nora Lelivelt, from the Sun Prairie School District, is another apprentice currently in the department. She is mentored by graduate students in the lab of Vatsan Raman. Like Amro, she is embarking on her own project after learning lots of basics.

“My mentors are great and I also get to participate in lab meetings, which is cool,” she says. “I’ve always gravitated toward science and now I have a better view of what type of science I want to get more involved in. I highly recommend the program.”

She adds that the instructional component of the program was also very beneficial for her. For example, rather than just being in lab and told to mix chemicals together to perform a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), she learned what the technique really is and how it works to amplify DNA. She says she also learned a lot about preparing her resume and interview skills.

“I figure I didn’t get the opportunity to work in a research lab when I was in high school so I wanted to share that experience,” Raman says. “For students interested in science and research, it’s great for them to learn how things work at a top-tier institution like UW–Madison early on.”

Over the years, the department and campus as a whole have had multiple youth apprentices. The program serves as just one example of the Wisconsin Idea, as students, staff, and faculty of the university work to inspire bright young minds to pursue careers in the state through experiential learning. John Fassl, the youth apprentice coordinator for Dane County School Consortium, says many of the department’s long-standing mentors are a great asset to the program.

“Having mentors like Brian and Conor and the others in the department has been very valuable for the students,” Fassl says. “So many of these students go on to successful careers or great colleges or universities in Wisconsin.”