Rutgers–Camden Program Introduces Camden Teens to STEM Careers

Abneris Morales with Professor David Salas-de la Cruz

Abneris Morales with Professor David Salas-de la Cruz

By Jeanne Leong

As a young girl, Abneris Morales dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer or a preschool teacher, but her career aspirations now involve science research thanks to a partnership between Rutgers University–Camden and the LEAP Academy University Charter School.

Morales developed an interest in chemistry in high school, and with encouragement from her chemistry teacher at LEAP, she spent a summer participating in the American Chemistry Society’s Seed Program, working in the Rutgers–Camden lab of David Salas-de la Cruz.

In the summer of 2015, as a rising senior at LEAP, she had her first opportunity to conduct research with Salas-de la Cruz, a Rutgers–Camden assistant professor of chemistry.

“I thought I’d give it a shot,” says Morales, now a Rutgers–Camden rising junior majoring in chemistry. I didn’t know I’d like it until I tried it.”

Salas-de la Cruz has become a mentor to Morales, working with her in the lab, and giving her opportunities to shadow a Ph.D. student who also guided her and shared her experience in academia.

Morales credits Salas-de la Cruz for giving her the confidence to take on projects that she wasn’t sure she could handle.

Through Salas-de la Cruz’s assistance, she applied for and received a grant from the New Jersey Space Grant Consortium to conduct her own research. She’s working on fabricating a bandage composed of natural and synthetic materials for astronauts so they can create their own materials for wound healing while they’re involved in space exploration.

“It allows me to step outside of my shell of shadowing another student and do more of my personal research,” says Morales. “It’s not very common to see that in chemical research because spots are often taken by more experienced students, but Dr. Salas-de la Cruz really worked with me to open the door for me to get my foot into the door of the research world.”

Salas-de la Cruz’s work with LEAP Academy began shortly after he came to Rutgers–Camden in 2013, leading the effort along with Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers–Camden, to create the fabrication laboratory in LEAP’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) building. Known as the Fab Lab, the facility allows K-12 grade students to take designs from concept to reality using 3D printers and up-to-date fabrication technologies to create solutions to community-oriented problems. If there is gear they don’t have for a project, they can create it.

Salas-de la Cruz’s partnership with LEAP aims to expose students to the STEM fields. The opportunities now include the Army Educational Outreach Program’s (AEOP) High School Apprenticeship Program offered with Jinglin Fu, an assistant professor of chemistry at Rutgers–Camden.

“We can bring students from Camden to expose them to research investigations with the goal of motivating minority students into STEM fields,” says Salas-de la Cruz.

Peter Riera, a rising senior at LEAP Academy, received an early start on his planned career in the sciences as a summer AEOP intern. He learned the basics, such as how to properly use a pipette, a laboratory tool used to transport and dispense a measured volume of liquid.

Professor David Salas-de la Cruz works with intern Peter Riera

Professor David Salas-de la Cruz works with intern Peter Riera

Riera’s project in the program involves developing a natural protein/polysaccharide-based membrane for water filtration that soldiers on long-term deployments can use to make water safe to drink. Soldiers often rely on bottled water that is delivered to them when they’re on a mission. The filter membrane that Riera is creating could be used in any wearable technology, and water poured through the natural-based membrane would remove lead and other harmful substances to provide safe drinking water.

“If you are in a war zone and trying to get water to people in combat, you don’t want to risk someone getting hurt in the crossfire,” says Riera.

The Rutgers–Camden partnership with LEAP Academy opens doors for students by exposing them to the sciences and helps them figure out their passions, and gives them a leg up when they arrive at college.

“Some students don’t know what they want to major in in college,” says Salas-de la Cruz. “But with programs like this, at least they have a little bit of a guide, a little pathway to be an engineer, or a chemist, or a computer scientist.”


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