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Young Dawgs Program encourages students’ passions for science and mentoring

From left: Young Dawgs student Tanishk Sinha, Franklin College faculty member Janet Westpheling and genetics undergraduate student Noor Sohal, a former Young Dawgs participant, discuss a genetics project. (Photo credit: Dorothy Kozlowski)

By Emily Webb/UGA Today

Noor Sohal loved science as a student at Lambert High School in Forsyth County. Her interest in genetics and synthetic biology brought her, as a rising high school junior, to Janet Westpheling’s lab in 2016 as part of the university’s Young Dawgs Program.

The lab works to make energy in sustainable and environmentally friendly ways, such as converting plants to fuels like ethanol, butanol and bioplastic. During her Young Dawgs internship, Sohal worked with the ­organism ­Caldicellulosiruptor bescii, or C. bescii, which breaks down biomass. She also constructed plasmids—pieces of DNA that have genes on them—to make the organism produce ethanol.

“Even though I wasn’t doing something that was huge or completely on my own, I did have a sense of ownership over it, which is something that I learned isn’t very common,” she said. “I learned from the lab environment that you get a sense of pride from your work, and you want to put the best foot forward.

“The research was very cool, but what I’ll say to everyone is that you don’t have to love what you research, you have to just learn the process,” she added. “Learn to problem solve.”

Sohal completed her internship as part of the Young Dawgs Summer Science Program, a six-week program focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, subjects. The Academic School Year Program, a second Young Dawgs offering, lets students participate for one or two semesters and receive high school credit for successful completion.

Since the Young Dawgs ­Program began in 2008, 1,198 high school students and more than 500 UGA departments have participated. Students are matched one-on-one with professors to complete a 120-hour internship. The program is based in Human Resources’ Training and Development Center, which is part of the Division of Finance & Administration.

Jim Geiser, the senior managing consultant for Young Dawgs, identifies faculty members who would be willing to volunteer and help students. He persuaded Westpheling to get involved in the program.

“Jim’s an amazing person, and he’s so committed to this program,” Westpheling said. “These guys are so smart. It’s not just a service—it’s a joy to have these students in the lab asking really pointed questions.”

Sohal’s Young Dawgs experience convinced her to apply to and enroll at UGA. Today, she is a third-year genetics student who has continued working in ­Westpheling’s lab.

“I knew the lab environment I came across was so unique, and the people were so excited to do what they did, that I think that’s what inspired me to come back,” she said. “They were excited to be there. We celebrate birthdays, and we do lab parties. It’s like a big family.”

This summer, Sohal will have the opportunity to mentor her own Young Dawg, Tanishk Sinha, who is also from Lambert High School. Sinha will be one of 33 students on campus from May 27-July 3 for the Young Dawgs Summer Science Program.

Sinha, a rising senior, said participating in hands-on biology classes cultivated his interest in biology and genetics.

“I’m excited about Young Dawgs because it’ll be a great research opportunity,” he said. “I’m excited to learn about the research process. A lot of times, science is basic, but the research isn’t. Research is all trial and error, up to your creativity and your will. I want to learn how to research and how to solve problems.”

Sohal is excited about mentoring a student with similar interests to her own.

“I’m excited for him to see if this is what he wants to do in the future and for him to understand that it takes deliberate effort every single day to receive an end goal, and that’s definitely worth it,” Sohal said. “You should have pride over the individual steps.”

Mentoring and establishing relationships are important aspects of Young Dawgs.

“Our goal is that the students come to UGA and stay involved with the professor they did the internship with,” Geiser said. “We want to grow mentors who can keep the cycle going.”

Westpheling agrees.

“I can’t tell you how many people invested in my education,” she said. “If any of us have immortality in science, it’s not about anything we publish, it’s not about any discovery we make. It’s about the people we contribute to who come after us who are going to be much better than we were and do better things than we did and inspire their own students.”

Sohal credits mentoring with her growth as a college student.

“I was so lost. There are more than 35,000 kids at UGA. No one’s there to just guide you through it,” she said. “But having a mentor that’s like, ‘Here’s what other people have done. This is what you should do, and this is how your skills can be applied,’ is very helpful. It gives you a sense of reassurance that you’re not on your own.”

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