One of the last places you would expect to find teenage girls in the middle of July is a science classroom. But for Rachel Milhem, Romany Redman, and nine others, the Washington State University Spokane CityLab Young Women’s Summer Science Camp laboratory was one of the hottest places to be last summer.

“I wanted to participate in this camp, because I really like science, and I thought it would be fun to analyze stuff, like maybe whether or not aliens exist,” says Rachel Milhem, a sixth-grader at All-Saints Catholic School.

Rachel, along with 10 other young girls, decided to spend some of her summer engaging in an “Astrobiology Quest,” which sought to explain and understand the origin of the building blocks of life. It was some pretty intense subject matter for these junior high school students.

Romany Redman, an eighth-grader at Sacajawea Middle School, is a two-year veteran of CityLab’s science camp. “I decided to come back and do it again this year, because I had so much fun last year, and I made a lot of new friends,” says Romany. “What I like about this summer science camp better than school is the teachers here trust you with a lot of important stuff, and we actually get to participate in real experiments.”

Working under the premise that NASA discovered some Martian mummies, campers learned to conduct gel electrophoresis, type blood, check for the presence of starch and protein in mock digestive and fecal samples, and more. They explored DNA and rocketry, working with the research-quality equipment in WSU Spokane’s new Health Sciences Building. Campers also spent a day on the Pullman campus with visits to chemistry, physics, and birds of prey-along with Ferdinand’s, the CUB game room, and the swimming pool-then stayed overnight in a dorm.

Drawing on the appeal of mysteries for young people, CityLab teaches scientific reasoning and methods as tools to solve problems. Workshops challenge these 21st-century Nancy Drews with themes such as “The Mystery of the Crooked Cell,” an exploration of the molecular basis of a genetic disease using gel electrophoresis, and “Raiders of the Lost Arc (haleology),” which uses ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay) to look for protein residue on fossils.

Sylvia Adams Oliver of WSU Spokane created CityLab in 1995 to address and counter negative stereotypes and biases that young women and minorities face in the science setting. CityLab is a fully equipped, laboratory-based teaching and learning center providing mentoring and laboratory instruction in biology, chemistry, and biotechnology.

Bonnie Wagner, one of the instructors from this year’s science camp, repeatedly gave the girls encouragement and bolstered their confidence in their work as young woman scientists. “Ladies, right now is an exciting time in science. There are more colleges and careers than ever that are embracing women in many different areas of science,” she told her eager students. “Science is not just for men. Women have the brains to conduct these types of experiments too.”

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Spokane CityLab.