High Schoolers Try Protein Design at UW’s Summer STEM Camp

Science and technology are shaping our world, making it crucial to connect with young minds. That’s why a team from the Institute for Protein Design (IPD) recently spent a day with 60 high school students as part of the University of Washington’s STEM camp at W.F. West High School in Chehalis, Washington.

Here’s a glimpse into our inspiring day of hands-on science and learning.

More Than Textbooks

Our goal was simple: we wanted to show students that science is more than just a subject in school—it’s a fascinating line of work that touches every part of daily life.

“High school STEM camps are a fantastic venue for us to engage with young people who may already be considering a career in science,” said Ian Haydon, one of the event organizers. “We weren’t there to teach but to inspire.”

Speaking to the power of mentorship, Meg Lunn-Halbert, a graduate student in the Baker Lab, added, “I know in high school I had a few visiting scientists come talk to us about their work, and one of them sparked my love of scientific research. I hoped that I could be that to someone else!”

The students spanned from high school freshmen to seniors, so tailoring the material was no easy task. “Instead of delving into the nitty-gritty, we chose to focus on the big ideas behind our research,” explained Haydon.

The Tough Questions

IPD Translational Advisor Ingrid Swanson Pultz, PhD, found that the range of student knowledge levels was a plus: “The students helped us identify areas in the lesson plan that seemed clear to us but weren’t necessarily so for them. This helped us understand where other students might have questions.”

The level of student engagement far exceeded our expectations. “We had built in time for some Q&A, but the quantity and quality of the questions was really surprising,” noted Haydon.

Students didn’t just stick to the science; they wanted to know about its broader implications, such as how biotechnology intersects with intellectual property law and government regulations.

Nate Greenwood, a Baker Lab graduate student who also participated, felt that the questions were the best part. “It was so rewarding to see them so interested and engaged,” he said.

“We will definitely build in even more time for questions next time,” said Haydon.

IPD outreach volunteers (left to right): Beau Lonnquist, Zac Jones, DéJenaé See, Ljubica Mihaljevic, Marti Tooley, Meg Lunn-Halbert, Ian Haydon, Nate Greenwood, Yuliya Politanska, and Valentina Alvarez.

Test Tubes and Treats

Our team led the students through a range of hands-on experiments. The students built their own ‘proteins’ from everyday materials, used our latest AI-powered molecular design software, and even purified real protein molecules in the lab. We thank the event organizers and school staff for their help with these activities.

“Protein purification went very well, and the kids enjoyed watching the [colored proteins] concentrate on the resin and then elute off,” said Swanson Pultz.

We added a fun twist — an ‘Easter egg’ hidden in the lab instructions. Students who discovered the secret word ‘Rosetta’ and told an IPD member won a chocolate treat. About 40% succeeded, said Swanson Pultz.

Our day in Chehalis was more than just another outreach event; it was an affirmation of the boundless curiosity and potential that resides in youth. And for us at IPD, it reiterated the importance of what we do — not just in labs and academic journals, but in the communities that we hope to influence and serve.

If you would like to learn more about our community involvement or are interested in similar collaborations, please feel free to contact us.

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