Carnegie Mellon University
September 25, 2017

PGSS Students Dive into Research

Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences Students Explore Diverse Fields of Science Through Team Research Projects

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy

After a morning of classes, Kaylee Tao joins her fellow classmates to continue a previous group debate on what fair political districts look like, both mathematically and politically.

“It’s not an easy question. We are using geometry, theorems and probability to reconcile math and politics to see what factors contribute to a good voting system,” she said.

Their project was part of their studies during this summer’s Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences (PGSS). The five-week enrichment program brings top students across the state to Carnegie Mellon University’s campus to spend their days engaged in advanced-level science classes, labs and research projects.

“It’s fascinating because what makes sense mathematically (like drawing exact geometric boundaries) might not be fair politically. We are building our own districting and voting system and trying to solve real-life social issues with math,” added Tao, who is a now a senior at her high school in New Hope, Pa.

"It is an incredible networking opportunity, and everyone that I talk to I can tell is going to do something great in the world.”

Across campus, a dozen other PGSS teams meet, some working with quiet intensity and others having lively, full-fledged discussions. The energy in each room is equally as palpable and the excitement of being around peers who enjoy science as much as them is tangible.

“I am a science nerd, and it seemed like an incredible opportunity to challenge myself outside of my classes in high school while being surrounded by people with the same passion and who are at the same intellectual level. It is an incredible networking opportunity, and everyone that I talk to I can tell is going to do something great in the world.” said Palak Patel, who hails from Lancaster, Pa. 

Being around like-minded inquisitive peers fueled much of Patel’s team’s project, where the excitement came from devising their own research question and hypothesis and then building their experiment from the ground up. Studying the science of addition, Patel put her own spin on it by looking at the addictiveness of one of her favorite foods — cheese. Looking at the current research, Patel found that the substance casein, which is found in most dairy products, produces opiates after digestion. The team set out to extract casein from milk, butter and cheese to test how much is in each product to see how addictive these substances can be.   

For others like Braden Vaughan, a student at Blackhawk High School, his team’s project Drag Force and Terminal Velocity in Aerodynamic Systems reinforced his interest in a career in aerospace engineering.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to figure out what my next steps are going to be and prepare me for college. The professors are intense, but you can tell they are extremely talented in their field, and the classes are challenging but have taught me so many new things,” he said.

The PGSS program, which is funded and supported by the nonprofit PGSS Campaign, Inc., is unique in exposing students to scientific research and specialized scientific study, offering core and elective courses that explore the latest advances in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science. Morning classroom instruction is paired with alternating afternoon lab and team research project sessions. The supportive and research-oriented environment has helped propel many of its alumni into successful careers in the sciences.

“There's no question that this program changes lives. In fact, 96 percent of students pursue careers in the STEM fields,” said Barry Luokkala, teaching professor of physics and PGSS program director. “Further evidence of its impact is the fact that the program has continued to operate for the past several years without state funding, paid for entirely by generous donations from alumni, parents and friends of the program, as well as corporate sponsorships.”