A very small number of students – only about 10 or so – are accepted into any given Research Experience for Undergraduates program, a course offered by the National Science Foundation to support active research participation by undergraduate students.
This summer, one of those select students is Petal High School rising senior Hannah Hand, who will spend six weeks doing research in the lab of Jeffrey Wiggins at the University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Polymers and High Performance Materials. Hannah, who is a polymer science student at the high school, will work 20-25 hours a week alongside professors and graduate students to gain real-world experience and exposure to research and development in her field.
“I am so excited,” Hannah said. “I feel like this is a really good opportunity for me as a high-schooler, so I can get the experience of that kind of studying.
“I can see if I like that kind of environment, and I get to see if I can find a potential career out of it. I feel like I’ll learn so much from it.”
Specifically, Hannah and her fellow researchers will work on converting organic products into strong composites, which is a type of material used in aerospace and other applications. The group will be using Resveratrol, a natural antioxidant found in red grapes, in their projects.
“So we’re going to be turning that into the cyanate ester, which is a phenol, and turning that into the aerospace composite,” Hannah said. “The whole goal of it is to find a really strong composite out of something that’s organic, because organic materials are notorious for not being strong at all. So that’s what our whole goal is going to be.”
Krystin Holmes, who teaches polymer science at the high school, said the program will give Hannah opportunities that she wouldn’t be normally able to get as a high school student, because the kind of research at the REU is typically not available until the sophomore or junior level in college.
“I think it’s awesome,” Holmes said. “Hannah is a very, very deserving student. I actually had three students who applied who were all very qualified, but (REU representatives) called me and told me that unless somebody dropped out, they were only going to have room for one more student.
“So I think it speaks a lot to the polymer science programs in Mississippi, that we are providing a great foundation for those students to be able to go in and work in a lab.
“And I think it speaks a lot for the Petal School District in the type of education that these students are getting, and that they are prepared and they have the background to be able to do this at a sophomore or junior level.”
In addition to participating in this summer’s REU program, Hannah is active in the high school’s science fair and serves as one of the ambassadors for the Petal School District.
“We’re very excited, (Hannah’s) father and I, and very impressed with the program at the high school too,” Hannah’s mother Jacqueline Hand said. “In fact, she did the application before we knew it, and informed us later. So we’re very excited.”
Although Hannah isn’t exactly sure what she’ll do once she completes the research program, she’s given some thought to careers in the science field.
“I’m still researching a lot on different careers that I like, so I hope I can some insight on some of the things I like,” she said.