Skyline senior learning through high-quality apprenticeship

July 31, 2014

By Neil Pierson

When Hari Rajan graduates from Skyline High School next June, there may not be much celebration. That’s because he’s planning to have an even larger academic challenge in front of him.
Rajan is a star student at Skyline, and his major interest is biology. His passion for the inner workings of life is leading him toward a career as a doctor, and he’s planning to apply to some prestigious medical schools – Northwestern, Duke, Johns Hopkins and Pennsylvania, among others – in the coming year.
“My whole goal is to get into medical school … which I’ll continue to work toward my senior year,” Rajan said.
In the meantime, however, Rajan isn’t taking what most people would consider a relaxing summer vacation. He was accepted into a seven-week apprenticeship program through the Institute for Educational Advancement, and is working in a laboratory at the University of Southern California.
IEA apprenticeships are designed to link gifted high-school students with professional mentors in the Los Angeles area. Students who are selected typically come from “diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds,” an IEA news release stated.
More than 600 high-school students nationwide have participated in the apprenticeship program, which features several study areas like law, music, media relations, industrial design and cancer research.
IEA’s seven-week IEA program costs $7,000, although financial aid is available to qualified individuals. Students receive housing at USC, and tuition costs also pay for course materials, guest lectures, and evening and weekend activities outside the classroom.
Rajan said he found out about IEA from his parents and a counselor. He applied for several of his favorite programs and learned in mid-May he was accepted into a lab that studies shockwaves and their applications in sports science.
Dr. Veronica Eliasson, a USC professor, and other researchers are using shockwaves in water-filled cavities that simulate conditions inside the brain. Much of Eliasson’s previous work has dealt with concussions and traumatic brain injuries among football players.
Working in the lab, the scientists use high-speed photography to detail the impact of the shockwaves upon different structures.
Rajan began the apprenticeship in late June, and will be at USC until Aug. 9. His day usually starts early – a 7 a.m. wake-up call, followed by breakfast and time to get clean and dressed. He’s typically in the lab from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
For the first two weeks, Rajan said, he served as an assistant to a USC doctoral candidate, helping him with a research project and a thesis paper. That experience allowed Rajan to begin forming his own thoughts, and he later met with Eliasson to discuss ideas for his own thesis and project.
Rajan has spent a lot of time learning about glutamate receptors. Glutamic acid serves as a neurotransmitter, and plays a key role in how people learn and retain information. The doctoral candidate he worked with constructed a device to simulate traumatic brain injuries.
When receptors become impacted through blunt force, the brain can become overwhelmed. Diseases such as epilepsy are common results.
“There’s too many messages being sent back and forth between neurons,” Rajan explained.
His interest in biology has served him well as a research apprentice.
“But the overall project was actually more physics-based, and I didn’t have very much experience in physics coming in,” Rajan said. “That was probably my biggest challenge coming in the first week, learning how the device worked.”
Rajan said he’s looking forward to his senior year, where he’ll again be working with one of his favorite mentors – Skyline biology teacher Gretel von Bargen.
“She helped me bridge that gap between the classroom, the textbooks … and how it affects the real world,” he said.

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