TJ’s Mentorship Program: Opportunity and Responsibility
Internship, mentorship — most of us probably use these words interchangeably, but at TJ the word mentorship typically refers to a special off-campus research experience that provides an alternate way to fulfill TJ’s senior research project requirement. TJ’s Mentorship Program is a specific opportunity open to select seniors, who explore real-world research alongside experienced scientists, clinicians, engineers, and other expert professionals several days a week for a semester or more.
Each TJ Mentorship student is integrated into a research team where the student works closely with his or her supervising scientist, often generating data that will form the basis for a published article. In addition, many Program sites have instrumentation not available even in TJ’s well-equipped labs, along with access to specialized materials and animal and human subjects. Students are usually assigned a portion of a Mentor’s project and are then held responsible for its development. Mentors are committed to the educational component of the relationship and are very generous with their time, making it an invaluable experience for students considering research careers.
Although Mentorship students’ work is directly supervised by their Mentors, they are also affiliated with one of the school’s Senior Research Laboratories and work under that Lab’s Director, who is responsible for assessing students’ progress. Both of these supervisory relationships are coordinated by the school’s Mentorship Program Director, Mr. Alfred Lampazzi, former TJ Biotechnology Lab Director, and the Mentorship Program Assistant, Susan Luxenberg. The Program features the same project requirements and academic goals as in-school laboratory research work; however, Mentors work with the Lab Directors to assist students in producing periodic deadlines for project completion.
Students apply to the Mentorship Program in the first semester of their junior year, at the same time that they are applying to a TJ Senior Research Lab. In addition to the standard Senior Research Lab application, Mentorship applicants provide a resume and two faculty recommendations and are interviewed by the Program Director, who also reviews their transcript. Students are provisionally accepted into the Program, contingent on the availability of a suitable placement. The Program Director arranges for the majority of placements, taking into account the students’ interests and Mentors’ needs and expertise, although some students find Mentors on their own.
Many Mentorship students begin working with their Mentors during the summer before their senior year, and most Mentorship students spent the first semester of their senior year at their research sites. About a quarter of the Mentorship students — those who both have flexibility in their schedules and are involved with ongoing projects or are conducting follow-up research — continue their work into the second semester.
The Mentorship student’s schedule is very different from that of a typical TJ senior. Mentorship students are only on campus for full days on Tuesdays and Thursdays (Blue Days) for Periods 1-4. On Mondays (Anchor Days), most Mentorship students head to their sites after lunch, and on Wednesdays and Fridays (Red Days) they go directly from home to their off-campus labs. These students take their 5th Period course — typically either AP Government or AP English — online. Those Mentorship students who choose to take their 5th Period class on campus, which include primarily those finishing their study of a world language, leave campus on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays after 5th Period.
The sacrifices are significant. For some, the most difficult part is arranging transportation. Students must either be able to drive themselves to and from home to both TJ and their research site, as well as from one to the other, or must have a parent who is able to drive them, or a carpool, or a way to get around via public transportation. On top of these logistical issues, Mentorship students are often unable to participate in sports and clubs, missing out on the culminating year of these activities, including opportunities to hold leadership positions. They miss special 8th period activities and Friday night football games, along with the intangible benefits of spending more time at school, such as the opportunity to talk to teachers between classes and to take care of administrative matters and hang out with friends during lunch and JLC.
Thirty-eight seniors participated in TJ’s Mentorship Program this year. Students worked with mentors at area academic and government research labs as well as at several private companies. Institutions hosting the largest number of Mentorship students included: George Mason University (11), Georgetown University (6), National Institutes of Health (4), Naval Research Lab (3), and Children’s National Medical Center (2), with one each at George Washington University, University of Maryland, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Naval Medical Research Center, Department of Commerce, National Museum of Natural History, and private companies ID.me, Classic Homes, Haystax Technology, Invincea Labs, Setty & Associates, and Palantir Technologies.
Projects reflected the breadth of TJ research. Students were affiliated with the following nine Senior Research Labs: Biotechnology, Chemical Analysis, Computer Systems, Engineering Design, Mobile App, Neuroscience, Oceanography, Prototyping, and Robotics.
TJ’s annual Mentorship Fair gives the school an opportunity to showcase the Mentorship Program and thank the Mentors. Dr. Glazer opened this year’s Fair, held on Wednesday, March 22nd, by recognizing the School Board members in attendance — Ilryong Moon and Dalia Palchik, TJ ’01 — and speaking directly to the Mentors in the audience: “This day is really for you, and I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for our students,” he began. “You are providing the latest, most advanced and innovative opportunities not just for the Mentorship students but for all TJ students because the ideas you share come back to the school.”
Three seniors briefly presented their research findings. Samuel Damashek’s Computer Science project analyzed keystroke data, accelerometer data, and sounds picked up by a microphone to identify the author of a typed smart-phone message. Helen Tran’s Biotechnology project tested the hypothesis that fruit flies raised on a high-sugar diet would die earlier than control flies. Neil Parikh’s Neuroscience project examined possible improvements to chemotherapy drug delivery systems.
Mr. Lampazzi was the last to speak before students and their guests walked from the auditorium to Gym II for the poster session, where they were greeted by a student string quartet and a beautifully presented lunch catered by the PTSA Hospitality Committee. The Mentorship Director told the students that they already had a responsibility to help the next generation of scientists. The Mentors likely had someone who helped them with their careers, he said, and now “your mentors have passed this baton to you. When you get a message from an 18-year-old asking if they can work in your lab, you’re going to say yes. It’s what we do to support science in this country.”