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DECATUR – Scientific experiments conducted by high school students are typically not much more than an academic exercise.

Not so with research under way this summer at Millikin University, where three economically disadvantaged high school seniors are helping create and study hollow nanoparticles, specifically clumps of silver atoms coated with clumps of gold atoms, to see if they can one day be injected into tumors to destroy cancer from the inside out without harming healthy tissue.

“Nanoparticles are apparently preferentially taken in by cancer cells and may also be useful in locating them,” said Millikin's Anne Rammelsberg, who with fellow associate professor of chemistry Paris Barnes, is overseeing the project.

The American Chemical Society Project SEED summer research program awarded Millikin $7,000 in fellowship funds to involve the high school students, and the Decatur-Springfield ACS Chapter kicked in another $500 so that each could get a $2,500 stipend for their work.

Alison Harris and Perri Grimes of Eisenhower High School and Precious Dixon of MacArthur High School started last week and will work full time in the Leighty-Tabor Science Center through Aug. 7.

Millikin undergraduates also working on the project with the high school students are seniors Peter Piers of Schaumburg and Aaron Fleming of Lovington.

Harris and Grimes said they are both more interested in the biological sciences, with Harris looking at studying animal or environmental science in college. Grimes is considering a career in nursing.

The trio made silver nanoparticles their first day and on day 2, the youthful researchers turned their attention to using the silver nanoparticles to former hollow gold nanoparticles.

First, however, they had to let the solution containing the silver nanoparticles warm up to room temperature and add the gold-containing liquid gradually, at a rate of about 61 microliters every 30 seconds, to achieve the desired result. “If you add the gold too quickly, it clumps with itself too much,” Rammelsberg said.

Harris and Grimes used a pair of micropipetters and the stopwatch function on Harris' cellphone to complete the task. “My solution is starting to look bluish now,” Grimes said.

“I'm really excited to be in this program,” Harris said. “I thought it would help with college.”

Their science teacher, Penny Dunning, who was visiting that day, told her students she was proud.

“I'm a cancer survivor, so I'm really happy to see you working on this,” Dunning said.

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