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Ana Laurean, left, and Gloria Mateo, freshmen at Reseda High School, complete an assignment as part of the California NanoSystems Institute’s High School Day.
Liz De La Torre plans to study medicine and become a doctor someday.
A junior at John Marshall High School, De La Torre was one of more than 150 Los Angeles-area high school students who attended the California NanoSystems Institute's High School Day, held Saturday at UCLA.
Organizers sought to inspire students to pursue studies in nanoscience, or "the science of small things," as well as the sciences in general, said Sarah Tolbert, director of the institute's outreach program.
"Nanoscience is a growing field that brings together many scientific disciplines, such as chemistry, biology, physics and engineering. We want students to learn that nanotechnology is not just elite robots out to get you," Tolbert said.
Workshops were led by volunteer graduate students and included hands-on activities for students, such as solar cell and thermodynamic workshops.
"Each thing (the graduate students) explained gave me a different perspective on the field. They take these little things and help us see the bigger picture of why they're important," De La Torre said.
Danny King, a graduate student in inorganic chemistry, led a presentation about thermodynamics, explaining how nanotechnology can be used to heat seats in cars or power household appliances.
"You'll each own approximately seven refrigerators in your lifetime," said King, soliciting laughter from a lab full of Reseda High School students.
In the basement of the institute, students saw advanced microscopes which could be used to viewed images of the hepatitis C virus, a zebra fish brain and the structure of DNA.
Edwin Cordero, a senior from Camino Nuevo High School, marveled at the microscopes.
"They're just really big, and it's really impressive to hear how they work and all the things they can examine, like an atom," Cordero said.
Matthew Schibler, associate director of the advanced light microscopy/spectroscopy core lab at the NanoSystems Institute, said the lab will soon feature a stimulated emission depletion microscope, which uses lasers and colored dye to magnify.
The first of their kind in the U.S., the lasers alone can cost between $200,000 and $400,000, with the total microscope costing over $1 million.
Students do not have access to such equipment at their high schools, said Tolbert, who received requests from nine teachers, representing nearly 450 students, to participate in the event.
Only three high schools and one community college could be accommodated because of limited resources.
But, Tolbert plans to hold biannual outreach events for students in the future.
"The demand is there to do this a lot," she said.
The institute opened in a ceremony in December 2007. At that time, more than $500 million in research funding had been awarded to faculty members to perform research there, according to an annual report on UCLA research.
Many of the research areas have not yet been occupied by researchers, leaving empty space for the day's events to take place.
Jesus Ramires, a freshman at Reseda High School, said nanotechnology has sparked not only his interest, but also his hopes for the future.
"We learned that humans could power the whole world on solar energy if we just had a way to harvest it. The technology to capture that energy already exists and is just so small," Ramires said.
Kathy Flynn, chair of chemistry at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, brought a group of students, many of whom hope to attend UCLA and study science.
"It's great to check out these new facilities and resources that we don't have. ... (The institute) has been incredibly generous to share everything with us," said Flynn, who is hoping to develop a nanotechnology program at her college.
Armando de los Santos, a first-year student at the College of the Canyons, said, "Watching the demonstrations, we could make our own observations and really picture ourselves in the role of scientists."
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