CALS lab is learning experience, but . . .

Credit Dr. Julie Grossman with creating a degree of uncertainty in Malik Oliver’s plans for the future, of adding the word “but” to the high school senior’s vocabulary.

For a high school senior, Oliver seems to have a pretty good idea of what he would like his future to hold. He wants to go to college, and he wants to study engineering. And as a student at the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham, he would appear to be well on his way to that goal.

The School of Science and Math is an unusual public residential high school whose curriculum emphasizes science, math and technology. As a School of Science and Math graduate, Oliver, who’s from Fayetteville, should be well-prepared for college and an engineering curriculum.

But (there’s that word) Oliver has been exposed over the last two years to agricultural science, and his interest and curiosity have been peaked. He’s still interested in engineering, but . . .

Oliver was first exposed to agricultural science in the summer of 2009, when he took part in a program called CAALS 3-D. CAALS 3-D stands for Creating Awareness of Agriculture and Life Sciences Disciplines, Degree Programs and Discoveries.

The program, a collaboration of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the School of Science and Math, was created by Dr. Lisa Guion, assistant dean for diversity, outreach and engagement in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. CAALS 3-D is a week-long summer research experience on the North Carolina State University campus. It is designed to interest young African-American, Hispanic and Native American males in food, agricultural, environmental and life sciences research and careers. Guion points out that as a group, the young men for whom the program was designed are drastically under-represented in the College.

During the CAALS 3-D experience, students participate in hands-on research. Oliver was a CAALS 3-D participant in 2009, the first year of the program, and again last year.

And in both years, Grossman, assistant professor of soil science, provided a one-week research experience in her lab. Grossman’s research focuses on plant-soil-microbe relationships with the aim of enhancing soil fertility, particularly in low-input and organic agriculture systems.

Grossman’s research is interesting and useful, but it’s not engineering. Nevertheless, Oliver apparently enjoyed his lab experience enough the first year that he decided to spend time in Grossman’s lab again last year. A number of CALS faculty members participate in the program, and students may choose from different labs.

“The thing I really liked (about Grossman’s lab) was the people,” says Oliver. “Everyone was not only helpful — I learned a lot from them — but it was a really friendly environment. I didn’t feel intimidated.”

After last year’s CAALS 3-D program, Oliver began talking with Dr. Joan Barber, vice chancellor for student affairs at the School of Science and Math, about continuing his research experience. In response, Guion built a mentor-guided research component into the CAALS 3D program to provide longer-term exposure to research for students who wanted it. Grossman was willing to provide that longer-term exposure in her lab. The final piece of puzzle fell into place when Guion contacted Dr. George Barthalmus, N.C. State director of undergraduate research at NC State, who provided support for Malik and another CAALS 3D student to participate in an academic year research experience.

The result: since last fall, Oliver has been spending two afternoons a week working in Grossman’s lab. At first, Oliver helped other students with their research. Then he started working on his own project.

“Malik has quantified populations of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in different farming system soils,” says Grossman. “He’s done great work.”

Indeed, Oliver’s research was considered of high enough quality that he was allowed to present it during the university’s Undergraduate Research Symposium in early April.

“I was the only high school student there, and that kind of intimidated me a bit,” says Oliver. “But once I saw that the judges were friendly, and the people were friendly, and I had the support of fellow lab members and Dr. Grossman, everything seemed to calm down, and I got more comfortable, and it was more of, ‘I’m going to enjoy presenting my poster to people that are interested than like a competition or anything.’”

But as heady as the research symposium might have been, what Oliver really seems to have enjoyed was spending time on a hyperprobe electron microscope at Fayetteville State University. While the instrument is usually used for geological samples, Oliver used the microscope, one of only a handful in the world, to analyze the chemical content of a nitrogen-fixing nodule from a cover crop root.

“I’ve always been fond of gadgets, and that’s a very big and cool gadget,” says Oliver. “I’ve never been able to use an electron microscope, and hyperprobe is an electron microscope and mineral mapper all in one.”

As Oliver’s high school days and time in Grossman’s lab draw to a close, he says he’s learned about research and about himself.

“I found out I love working with plants, and as far as organic agriculture and the bacteria that take part in it, I found out that that’s something that seemed to really interest me,” he says. “I’m not exactly sure why. It’s something that’s grown on me. It’s something I can take with me. It’s a passion for my future.”

Oliver will attend the Rochester Institute of Technology next year, but his N.C. State laboratory experience may color the choices he’ll make in coming years.

Says Oliver, “I’m still interested in engineering, but I feel like as far a college, having this experience, I’m going to keep my mind more open, and I’m going to definitely see what I can do as far as agriculture and applying what I know and learned in the lab to my future in college or in real life.”

Guion adds, “At the end of the day, all a program like CAALS 3D can ask for is that students have an opportunity to interface with and learn from nurturing, caring faculty like Dr. Grossman, who undoubtedly will have a lasting impact on them, and that the students gain hands-on exposure to agriculture and life science research and potential careers that they would have never known about otherwise.”

Written by: Dave Caldwell, 919.513.3127 or

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