‘Dynamic duo’ link up in the lab for Project ENGAGES
Kirsten Parratt’s experience as a mentor in the Project ENGAGES program is the result of a happy accident.
Parratt, in her second year as a bioengineering Ph.D. student, works as a graduate research assistant in the lab of Krishnendu Roy at the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience. When she joined the lab, Parratt found out that part of the gig included mentoring a high school student.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but when the semester rolled around I saw what Project ENGAGES is about, what a great opportunity it is for these high school students to come in and work with us,” Parratt says. “Unlike a normal high school program in my experience, where a student may have five hours a week in the lab, these ENGAGES students are here for 16 hours, and then all summer, too. They really have a chance to get something done, and I like that.”
It’s time well spent, in other words. Parratt is mentoring Qwantayvious Stiggers, who is nearing the end of his junior year at B.E.S.T. Academy, an all-boys high school and one of three area schools served by Project ENGAGES (for Engaging New Generations at Georgia Tech through Engineering and Science). The others are Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy and KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, a co-ed high school.
Project ENGAGES aims to foster a deep interest in science among students in these schools, which have student populations that are predominantly African-American, with a high percentage of kids receiving a free or subsidized lunch. The goal is to raise awareness of the students to the worlds of engineering, science and technology through real-world, hands-on experience, under the guidance of world-class researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Founded and chaired by Bob Nerem (founding director of the Petit Institute) and Manu Plat (Petit Institute member, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering) and managed by Lakeita Servance, ENGAGES is two years old. Currently there are 14 students in the biotechnology research track, administered at the Petit Institute, and nine students in the engineering research track, based at the Georgia Tech Research Institute.
After mentoring in the program for the past year, Parratt is basically hooked.
“I absolutely want to continue as an ENGAGES mentor,” she says. “A lot of it is just seeing your student succeed. You can’t look at this kind of experience as taking up more of your time. It’s about making a huge difference with these young students, and clearly, they think it’s the coolest thing – the chance to really see cutting edge science. When I was their age, I would have given anything for an opportunity like this.”
For his part, Stiggers believes he is incredibly lucky – lucky to have made it through the vetting to become of Project ENGAGES; lucky to have landed in the Roy lab, where some research has focused on engineering articular cartilage. “My mother is dealing with articular cartilage problems,” he says. “I’ve had the best of luck in getting everything I wanted here, and then to have an actual relationship between my research and my mother’s health issue. I gave her a tour of the lab, and she was amazed.”
Lucky, too, he says, to be paired with Parratt. “We’re a great team,” he says. “One of the things I like about Kirsten’s style is that she doesn’t treat me like I’m a high school kid. At lab meetings, she’ll ask my input, and so will Dr. Roy. They’re serious, so I’d better have something to say.”
Parratt learned the rhythms of mentoring while earning her degree in Chemical and Biological Engineering at Princeton University. “I had two fantastic mentors when I was an undergrad working in a lab,” she says. “I saw that mentoring was about helping student development. It wasn’t just, ‘here’s how you do research.’ It was more along the lines of, ‘here’s a class you should consider, and why,’ or ‘here’s an opportunity that could help you along.’”
So she welcomed the opportunity as a grad student to be a mentor at Georgia Tech. And it seems to be catchy, one of those ‘gifts that keep on giving’ things, because Stiggers hasn’t even graduated high school yet and he’s already thinking long term.
“I definitely want to be a mentor some day. I want to give something back, the way Kirsten has given back to me,” says Stiggers, who is looking forward to another year in the Roy lab with Parratt. “We are the dynamic duo of Project ENGAGES.”
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience