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Chem Buds: Seniors share passion for chemistry in internships and engineering projects

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Seniors Michael Perry (left) and Henry Diehl (right) stand in front of a storage area near the metal foundry in Diehl’s backyard. Photo by Grace Goldman


Seniors Henry Diehl and Michael Perry spend most of their weekends in Diehl’s backyard around an old electric pottery kiln filled with fire bricks and propane, propelling flames around a melting crucible with thrift store hairdryers and turning soda cans into aluminum ingots — you know, because it’s fun.

This is their “metal foundry,” where the two have built their own metal furnace after months of runs to Strasser Hardware for parts and QuikTrip for food, of course.

Diehl’s interest in creating the foundry was sparked by a love for chemistry and a craving for hands-on experience testing methods he learned in his AP Chemistry class, like electrolysis. And it doesn’t get much more hands-on than this — just one look at the burn marks and melted fingertips of their cowhide gloves is enough to show it.

Diehl and Perry spent the first semester of senior year in the Engineering Development and Design class at the Center for Academic Achievement (CAA) where the two designed a digitally-measured graduated cylinder using code, cameras and “computer vision,” impressing teacher Greg Thiel with their ambition and work. As a result, the teachers offered to have them drop their second course at the CAA and take up internships in the University of Kansas’ research labs.

“Anybody who, you know, works in their backyard to make a metal foundry is somebody who is very innovative in and of themselves,” Thiel said. “When they pushed that they love chemistry, we thought, ‘Well, we can do something. Whatever it is, we’ll find something that you can work on that involves your passion.’”

Now, Diehl and Perry leave East after fourth hour every day — save for Thursdays — and carpool 45 minutes up to KU’s research labs in Lawrence to work on projects in two different biochemistry labs. As a result, the two have been able to experience the world of research, focusing on their passions for both chemistry and engineering.

While Diehl and Perry had been through East’s engineering classes, the AP Chemistry course and even a semester of Engineering Design and Development at the CAA prior to their new internships, they were working in biochemistry labs — and knew no biochemistry. But as Diehl says about all his new challenges, when he realizes he wants to do something, he does it.

“It [is] cool as heck, would you not take the opportunity to go work at KU in a research lab for a semester?” Diehl said.

With college textbooks and graduates by their side, the two have been simultaneously teaching themselves biochemistry and working on their own projects within their respective labs. As Diehl is reading up on the intestinal villi and crypts, he’s writing — yes, writing — a chapter for a “drug carrying” textbook about the two parts of the intestine, as well as the safety and toxicity of different drug carriers, which help control the release of a drug into the body.

Additionally, he is following a graduate student in the pharmaceutical lab through their research into the blood-brain barrier, searching for a process to administer medicines directly into the brain without being stopped by the enzyme protecting it to treat health issues such as Parkinson’s disease.

Over in the computational biology lab, Perry is working with research related to protein-protein docking, the interaction in which two proteins combine to form a single bonded group, or complex. His job is to take the lab’s “GRAMM function,” a computer application that determines the structures of these protein-protein complexes based off of specific files, and turn it into a user-friendly desktop app — the “grunt work” of the lab, according to Perry.

To do this, Perry is creating a user-interface for the app and creating visualizations of the protein-protein complexes combined in the GRAMM function so that even a high schooler — like himself — could easily utilize the tool.

Often the twos’ work days at the labs last until 5 o’clock. With homework and studying for their four East classes awaiting them back at home, leaving Lawrence hardly marks the “end” of their day — even conversations in the car on the drive home aren’t always relaxing.

“There’s some days we talk about just what’s going on at school, and there’s other days where we have long discussions about like time relativity,” Perry said. “Sometimes by the time we come back from KU, we’re both just so brain dead because we have these complex conversations.”

Both Perry and Diehl hope to better prepare themselves for college and get a better sense of what type of research they would like to pursue through, well, their current college-level projects. Diehl wants to major in chemical engineering in college and then spend four years in nuclear engineering for the navy, and Perry is planning to study computer science at KU and focus on either chemistry or biology.

But right now, their immediate goal is to get their work officially published by the end of the semester.

If Perry completes his application, he will get to write about and publish his product in a scientific journal. And if Diehl finishes his biochemistry chapter, his name and work will be featured in an textbook published by Elsevier, the world’s leader in science and health publishing.

While the two have the opportunity to publish official scientific works before graduating, Diehl and Perry are still limited in the work they can do within the labs since they’re pretty much the textbook definition of a liability: untrained, unpaid high schoolers. They still get their desired hands-on engineering and research experience through all of their other projects, though, whether it be at the foundry or the CAA.

On their free Thursdays, they still fill time at the CAA working on their own personal project, building a wood and resin river table. Then, they come back to East to lead their Chem Club and work on their year-long task of creating an electrolytic cell to convert CO2 into CO.

They’re also running this year’s “Assassins,” a senior class tradition and water gun game, and Perry plans to essentially automate the entire process. He’s creating a database of participating seniors and coding processes to randomly select each seniors’ “target,” manage who is still in the game and more — all just to circumvent the inconvenience of individually texting every senior.

Aside from their separate internships and college plans, the two are not only constantly together, but working together. Sure there are times when they can “hate each other’s guts” during stressful deadlines, according to Perry, or when Diehl is making fun of Perry for struggling to get work done and Perry is jokingly punching Diehl out of annoyance. But through the past year of sharing their passions and projects everywhere from Diehl’s backyard to the CAA to KU’s research labs, Diehl and Perry have become “the best duo.”

“They probably work as well together as any team I’ve seen because they have a mutual appreciation for each other as well as the fact that… they’re not critical of each other, they accept each other and they respect each other,” Thiel said. “All of those come together to make a very dynamic team.”


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Will Tulp

Will Tulp
Will Tulp is the Harbinger's Online Editor-in-Chief this year. In his four years working for the publication, he has produced content for print, online and multimedia, winning awards at NSPA/JEA National Conventions and becoming a member of Quill and Scroll along the way. Outside of the Harbinger, Will is in IB, on the varsity soccer team and plays a few instruments. »

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