When It’s More Than Just Your Average Lab

When I parked my car in front of the refurbished old school building that is now the Energy Innovation Center, my eyes were immediately drawn to the pollinator gardens dotting the parking lot. Oh, this is going to be a good afternoon, I thought. And I was not disappointed. I was there to catch up with Dr. Andre′ Samuel, a fellow Duquesne University alum, who received his Ph.D. in biology and took his degree in a direction no one has ever thought of in career counseling.

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Dr. Andre Samuel, director of the Citizen Science Lab

Samuel is the director of the Citizen Science Lab, a groundbreaking lab space in Pittsburgh, PA, that offers a variety of classes and programs for all ages, and is even available for birthday parties and public use. Housed within the Energy Innovation Center, the Lab is “a space where science enthusiasts and young people can come and experience life science experiments firsthand.” Samuel says, describing the Lab’s role in the community. “We want to provide a lab space to youth or individuals who want to work on their own ideas but don’t have access to a lab…I like to describe us as the bio version of the TechShop…you can come here and learn how to use any of the equipment that we have. You can learn how to do any of our techniques. And you can take that knowledge to work on projects. Some students come here, and they have their own idea for a project they want to work on already. So they just come here and we provide them with the space and help.”

The community feel was evident from the moment I walked in the doors of the Citizen Science Lab and saw teenagers working away building beaded models of DNA at the benches of the bright, open lab. This particular afternoon was a reflection of the fact that one of the most visible aspects of the Citizen Science Lab is the array of high-quality educational programming for school-aged children and teens. Samuel and his team have developed and implemented programs that cover drug design, bacterial transformation, genetics, microscopy, tissue culture, energy, and engineering.

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Genetics class in progress

What is particularly interesting to note is that Samuel’s target demographic are those who otherwise have little exposure to what goes on inside a lab. The Lab partners with Pittsburgh Public Schools, but they also have students from a wide range of districts and even programs specifically for homeschooling students. “Our major goal is to get more youth interested in life science careers, and we believe the best way to do that is by having youth actually doing hands-on experimentation.”

Samuel also wants to break the stereotype about what science is or what a scientist looks like. “What we find is that most kids who don’t like science feel that way because they think it’s boring and they don’t get to do anything,” he notes. “But their minds change drastically when they get to come here and actually do experiments for the first time.” To further help break barriers, Samuel recently held a workshop titled “Science is Not for Nerds-Dispelling the Myth of who can be a Scientist” to further breakdown the images that come to mind with the word “scientist.”

“If you go out and look at the media, very rarely are African-Americans ever portrayed as scientists. You have shows like the Big Bang Theory, which I love, but which is definitely lacking a minority presence and a minority character…What I want to show these kids is that the image of a scientist doesn’t have to be a Caucasian male, sitting in lab, with a white coat and a pocket protector.” Rather, the Citizen Science Lab gives students the opportunity to see themselves as scientists, as someone who can ask a question about their world and conduct their own experiments to find the answer to that question.

As we talked more about the kinds of projects Samuel’s students are working on, it was easy to see how he and his equally dedicated team are having an impact. Besides noting changes in students’ attitudes, and even changes in career goals, many of Samuel’s students are taking science outside of the Citizen Science Lab and competing at science competitions. “A number of our students that have come through here have gone on to compete at the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Sciences, the Intel ISEF competitions, and some smaller competitions. And almost all of those students have placed in either the top three or received honorable mentions for their work that they completed here at the lab.”  Samuel has other science competitions coming up that his students are looking at, and he just received a grant that will allow up to forty minority girls to participate in SeaPerch, a national engineering and robotics program where students learn to build and operate an underwater rover and can even compete against other rovers.

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Yes, that is a baby tarantula. Gotta have a lab pet!

While all of the Citizen Science Lab’s endeavors and achievements seem novel, taking a step back in Samuel’s career illustrates the progression of how his original idea came about. While working on his Ph.D. (a time when most grad students are stressed to a remarkably frazzling level) Samuel initiated S.I.G.M.A. Science Mentorship, a project that matched high school students with graduate and undergraduate students for a summer program. The high school students would get first-hand experience conducting molecular biology experiments in one of Duquesne’s teaching labs.

Around the time of graduation, Samuel teamed up with faculty from Duquesne to find funding for something even bigger than S.I.G.M.A.—something that on a year-round basis could help expose kids to science and show scientists in a non-stereotypical light. Eventually, the funding for the idea came in, and through a partnership between Duquesne University and Urban Innovation21, the Citizen Science Lab opened its doors in June of 2015. Though it currently exists as a program under Urban Innovation21, its business model is strong enough that the goal is become an independent nonprofit by 2017.

Samuel’s work with the Citizen Science Lab recently even led him to a number of community service awards, even at the national level. Last year, he was honored by BMe with a community leader award, recognition for making a positive difference in black men’s lives through his work with the Citizen Science Lab. Earlier this summer, Samuel was further recognized with a President’s Service Award, and was even invited to the White House to receive this honor with the other BMe awardees. Though very modest about the awards, Samuel is dedicated to the causes they represent. “While the Citizen Science Lab is open to everyone, one of our major goals, or one of my major goals, is to sort of change the demographic. Roughly you only have 4.5 to 5% of PhDs in the Life Sciences held by African-Americans, and we believe that is mainly due to a lack of exposure. And so we opened the Lab in the Hill District so that youth here would have direct access to the facility.”

In the end, though, I think the Citizen Science Lab’s best asset lies squarely amidst the hard work and dedication, and that asset is enthusiasm. I asked Samuel what the most challenging part of his job was, and I assumed it would be something mixed in with the struggles of running a non-profit. But Samuel’s answer shrugged off any obstacles and he replied, “I love what I do, and I wouldn’t trade this for anything else. The biggest reward for me is just seeing these kids come here and then hearing them say they had a good time.”

**For more information about workshops or classes for children, teens, and adults, see the website. And be sure to check out STEAM-abration in August, a free community event celebrating all things science, technology, engineering, math, and arts!

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