Isabella Moughal learned even more than she expected to during her summer in the Ferguson Lab at the University of Chicago. As a participant in the 2019 After School Matters STEM Lab Internship program at UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), she worked with a research team using computer modeling to measure how efficiently energy transfers between peptides at varying distances.
Learning the modeling technology and brushing up on her chemistry and physics were two of the takeaways she expected from the experience, she says; the day-to-day reality of how research actually happens was a revelation. “Before the internship, I didn’t know how team-oriented research is,” she says, “and how many people are working on one thing.” The lab’s team of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars welcomed her into their daily discussions and were glad to answer questions to help broaden her understanding of the work.
The summer also taught her just how much foundational work goes into scientific research: “It made me realize that not every minute of research is going to be super-fun and crazy and cool. Instead, there’s a lot of computer work and data and math that you have to do with your team to get to your end goal.” In addition to learning firsthand about how STEM professionals work, After School Matters interns at PME participate in college preparation workshops, receive mentoring from scholars in their labs, tour the Argonne National Laboratory, and hear from other PME researchers about their projects.
“People think that science is very cold. They don’t think of it as a warm profession, but it’s like art: You can do a lot and inspire people with it.”
Moughal — a 2020 graduate of Lane Tech High School and a native of the Jefferson Park neighborhood — says the program put her on a path to apply to and get into the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Even though she plans to study engineering at UIUC, she says she can envision herself back on the UChicago campus someday. “This program opened me up to the possibility of doing research, and I know UChicago puts a big emphasis on giving back to the community, so maybe I’ll be back at PME in five or six years. Whatever I end up doing, I know I want to give back or help in some way.”