COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — High school seniors throughout North Idaho must complete senior projects in order to graduate.
Most senior projects don’t have teenagers conducting doctorate-level lab work.
Kaylee Northrop, a Lake City High School senior who is dual-enrolled at North Idaho College, is doing just that, as reported by our partners, The Coeur d'Alene Press.
Northrop is spending the last months of her high school career in the lab alongside NIC chemistry professor Ryan Joseph. They're working with a type of organic molecule called a "glycopeptide," a relatively new class of molecule that can play a critical role in the real-world development of antibiotics.
The duo is experimenting with a new method to artificially produce the naturally occurring molecules. The project is a continuation of Joseph’s dissertation while earning his doctorate degree in chemistry at Washington State University.
“There are five or six different methods already that get at making these glycopeptides, but all of them have their benefits and drawbacks,” Joseph said. “New methods are always useful because they’ll have different benefits and drawbacks, so it gives alternatives and more power to scientists trying to make something in particular."
Northrop approached Joseph about being her senior project mentor after her dad, who had taken Joseph’s chemistry course at NIC, noticed and encouraged her interest in chemistry. Northrop said high school concepts and experiments were clicking for her, but she wanted to know more, so she asked Joseph if she could help with research projects or at least audit some of his college chemistry courses.
Joseph’s response was an enthusiastic one.
“I was probably more excited than she was,” he said. “When people ask you what you do and you say, ‘I teach chemistry,’ it’s usually a cringe moment, so to meet young people who are interested in chemistry — which, to me, is a beautiful and fascinating subject — is very exciting.
“A lot of people have this hidden talent that they don’t know about in the sciences or in the humanities, and coming to a place like North Idaho College allows them to discover that. It’s just been a fantastic thing to be able to work with a student like this in that context.”
For Northrop, working with Joseph has not only made for a unique senior project, but has also helped inform big decisions she faces about her future.
“With this project, I’m able to get a taste of the chemistry department or other sciences before I fully dedicate myself to it,” Northrop said. “In my senior project, I had a goal to see if I really enjoy chemistry before I need to decide a path going into college, and this has really showed me how much I do enjoy it. I know I would be struggling a lot more with graduating and needing to find a major if I didn’t have this opportunity.”
Joseph said the level of work and quality of learning Northrop is experiencing through the project is on par with what new tradespeople experience through an apprenticeship with a master of their craft.
He said one of the fantastic things about the trades is people can come from high school, community college or anywhere in life, get an apprenticeship and then go out and almost immediately find a job.
“It’s a similar thing here," Joseph said. "A lot of the skills Kaylee is learning are directly transferrable at this level to a career in a lab, so if she wanted to, she could probably successfully apply for work at one of our labs in the area.”
Before Northrop presents her senior project in May, she and Joseph plan to go to Pullman to work with the WSU chemistry department’s Garner Research Group to analyze the results of their lab work with hopes of publishing their findings in an academic journal.
All this goes to show that important work in science happens every day and closer to home than some might think, Joseph said.
“One of the issues that scientists face is we’re everywhere, but people often don’t know about us and where we are. That has something to do with access,” Joseph said. “A college like NIC is an opportunity to see that scientific development is actually happening in communities and that we’re not all off in an ivory tower or some distant lab on the East Coast. It’s happening all around us — at the University of Idaho, at WSU in Pullman and at North Idaho College."
The Coeur d'Alene Press is a KREM 2 News partner. For more news from our partners, click here.