Saturday, September 20, 2008

Young (Very Young) Science Scholars in Silicon Valley, Deepika Bodapati and Sunil Bodapati

Even though Deepika Bodapati is only 13 years old, she has a patent pending for her latest science fair project — a system that can be used at home to test spinach for contamination.

Deepika developed the project in the unique lab setting of A Schmahl Science Workshop, the nonprofit mobile-science lab that travels to schools throughout Silicon Valley. The program was founded in 1996 by Belinda Lowe-Schmahl. The purpose is to provide hands-on experiments and lessons and offer students a chance to link up with working scientists as mentors.

The program doesn’t come cheap. The cost of the truck, lab and equipment is $200,000, said Muril Smith, curriculum developer at Schmahl.

To help jump-start the mobile-science project, Santa Clara-based
Agilent Technologies Foundation donated $200,000 — $100,000 in cash and $100,000 in equipment. Juniper Networks Inc., donated $1,000 in 2004 and $20,000 in 2007 to the program. To keep the program afloat, the nonprofit charges a fee for its mobile workshops. Cost can range from $175 to $195 for in-school workshops to just $25 for schools that qualify for a reduce fee. That cost is subsidized by Juniper’s donation.

“What we’re able to do is bring state-of-the-art equipment to any school,” Smith said. “You can imagine the expense. Just a small lab could easily be $50,000. And if you multiply that by the number of schools, that’s a lot of equipment.”

The mobile lab is comparable to a university lab for upper-division science classes, allowing for experiments that range from DNA extraction to biochemical analysis.

“We like to put our students through a process where they learn how real science works, which is through hits and misses,” said Lowe-Schmahl, a research biochemist. “You start with a prototype, you test it, and you have to write a budget and figure out how much staff you need.”
Indeed, Deepika wrote a budget and was granted money for materials through Schmahl.

So did her brother, Sunil Bodapati, a senior at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose and a winner of several science fair medals. He is now working on cancer imaging research at Stanford University.

He recently co-authored an article in the trade publication Nature Nanotechnology, quite an accomplishment, Lowe-Schmahl said.

“For kids like Sunil and Deepika, who would probably go to college anyway, for every one of them, there are 20 kids who wouldn’t consider college without meeting a mentor and encouraging them through the process,” Lowe-Schmahl said.
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