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History and Mission

Project CRYSTAL (Colleagues Researching with Young Scientists: Teaching And Learning) was started in Professor Hazel M. Holden's laboratory (University of Wisconsin-Madison) in 2009. The goal of the program was and still is to provide highly motivated middle school students the opportunity to work on biochemical research in a state-of-the-art laboratory.

What exactly happens in Project CRYSTAL? To start, we select four students entering eighth grade from Spring Harbor Middle School to participate in the yearlong project.

For both the fall and spring semesters at the University of Wisconsin, these middle schoolers come to the laboratory each Tuesday and spend approximately 1.5 hours in discussions and working at the bench. The discussion material spans the range from basic inorganic chemistry to organic chemistry to biochemistry, and it is presented at an age-appropriate level. By the time the students leave in May and enter high school they understand the central dogma of biology, they have a firm concept about the differences between proteins and DNA and sugars, and they understand such processes as cloning and X-ray crystallography.

Shown in Figure 1 is an outline of the biochemical steps that the students are introduced to from week to week. In the fall semester, they start with cloning a gene from genomic DNA and end by getting it into appropriate expression vectors. In the spring semester, they learn to express the protein in Escherichia coli and to purify it. Towards the end of the semester they set up crystallization trials. Shown in Figure 2 is a typical day at the “bench.” During the second to last class the students learn to build a protein model from an electron density map (Figure 3). On graduation day, we celebrate with fun activities such as making “elephant toothpaste” and freezing flowers in liquid nitrogen.

Project CRYSTAL weekly posterFigure 1: Steps carried out each week
Photo of Middle school student at the bench
Figure 2: Typical Tuesday
Middle school Students learning to Build a protein
Figure 3: Model building

Figure 4: Erin volunteering

During the summer of 2016 a former Project CRYSTAL student, Erin Fennessy (Figure 4), volunteered to work in the laboratory for three hours a day, five days a week. She will be entering her junior year in high school with the plan of pursuing a career in science.

In 2009 President Barrack Obama launched a program to “move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade.” We are doing that - with four students at a time.


The comments from the parents and the participating students have been overwhelmingly positive.

As one student, Sarah wrote: “Project CRYSTAL was an amazing opportunity in my life that I didn’t even really know I wanted before I was given the chance to participate. Project CRYSTAL made me realize my love for science and completely changed my dreams and aspirations. The discoveries we made in the biochemistry lab under the guidance of Professor Hazel Holden and her team of grad students spurred the desire inside of me to become a medical researcher. The Project CRYSTAL program has been a blessing in my life and has changed my outlook on life completely.”

Bekki, Sarah’s mother stated the following: “In my opinion, Project CRYSTAL changed Sarah’s life. She gained a new confidence in herself and her abilities. She saw what real science, outside of a middle school classroom, was like and how it mattered in the world. Sarah will be a senior next year. She is still looking at colleges, but plans on pursing a major in Pre-Med with the goal of becoming a doctor and medical researcher. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to get kids to like science. Project CRYSTAL works and Professor Holden is a wonderful teacher, a mentor, and an inspiration to these young scientists, and I will always be grateful for what she did for Sarah.”

Gwen, a former student wrote “I entered Project CRYSTAL with a great deal of skepticism as a middle school student with no prior interest in the sciences. At first, the subject matter seemed overwhelming and the lab work confusing, but through the adept mentoring of the college students and Hazel Holden herself, everything slowly shifted into focus. Lectures that had once seemed boring began to capture my imagination in ways I never thought possible. Lab time quickly became a favorite for all three of my friends and me. By the end of the year, staring at the glossy, colorful pictures of the crystals I had spent all year working towards filled me with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Not only had we grown some excellent crystals, but we had also gotten our paper published and presented our work at Edgewood College. Going into my senior year, I am applying to colleges for a biology major in the hopes of someday becoming a medical researcher. It is clear to see that the profound love of science that Project CRYSTAL instilled in my life still lives on today.”

Melissa, a former student wrote “My experiences through Project CRYSTAL served as my first exposure to real lab work and research. I knew from that point on that I definitely wanted to study science in college. Project CRYSTAL has given me the confidence to take the most advanced STEM and science courses in high school, lead Science Olympiad team for junior and senior years, and strive to participate in future research projects throughout college. I will always appreciate the kindness, wisdom, and leadership of Professor Holden and her graduate students from my year in their lab. Not only did I gain a larger appreciation for science, but I also had lots of fun seeing our project form and interacting with the knowledge of graduate students.”

James and Odette, parents of Melissa wrote “Project CRYSTAL provided Melissa with a footprint interest in chemistry with Professor Holden and her team of graduate students. Theory lectures were appropriate for aspirational middle schoolers to apply directly into the laboratory. The outcome provided Melissa with a proper approach to comprehending theory, executing experiments, and solving exercises across the sciences. It also gave her an understanding of how things work in the physical world, giving inspiration to want to learn more.  In middle school, students are ready to tie together how things seem to work in the physical world and why it is important to do research to learn more. It truly can be the beginning of the journey for learning advanced science, supplementing what is learned in the classroom with lab work.  It also gives a first example of doing experimentation where the outcome is not already known, but that a possibility of a breakthrough exists. How cool is that for a middle schooler!”

Manpreet, a former student wrote "I just completed the first semester of my sophomore year at UW-Madison. I found that a lot of the material discussed in my Organic Chemistry  course was review from Project Crystal and wanted to once again thank you for providing me with the knowledge of biochemistry to allow me to continue to have a good understanding of this fascinating science and basic lab technique. I actually got to run a PCR and gel electrophoresis of plant DNA in my biology lab and it was very exciting to have confidence in the lab because of my prior experience."