Love of science taking WAHS junior prestigious places

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Caitlin Strassburg works in a chemistry lab at Warren Area High School.

Caitlin Strassburg is all about science and math.

As a junior at Warren Area High School, Strassburg is running out of science courses and has taken most of the high school’s math courses as well as pre-calculus and calculus I and II through dual-enrollment.

She wanted her first pet to be a salamander so she could study it.

“When I was little (six or seven years old) I made my dad buy me an Erlenmeyer flask so I could drink from it,” she said. That’s a glass, conical, very stereotypical laboratory vessel.

It even shows in her jokes. “What is 6.02x10e23 avocados? A guaca-mole.”

Strassburg’s preoccupation with learning, especially in science and math, has served her well and most recently resulted in her being accepted to attend the prestigious Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.

She is one of about 50 students state-wide selected from an applicant pool of about 500 of the state’s best and brightest.

The program starts at the end of June and lasts five weeks.

“PGSS is proud to offer talented students the opportunity to participate in true scientific research and specialized scientific study,” according to the program’s website. “These opportunities are rarely available at even the best high schools, where top students are unable to be challenged at a suitably high academic level. The program also seeks to maintain a pipeline of modern technological talent throughout the state of Pennsylvania.”

“I work with a team of other students and we develop our own research,” Strassburg said. The specific area of study she will join was up to her. “I chose chemistry.”

The program will serve several purposes for Strassburg — chiefly to further her love of learning.

“I really love science and I really love math,” she said. “I’m running out of opportunities to do more science and math within the district.”

It will clear up a traditional summer-doldrums problem. “During the summer, I always get really, really bored,” she said. “I love learning. I want the opportunity to do more research and learn on my own.”

Participation in the program will also be great on applications.

“This especially will prepare me for college and make me recognizable as someone who excels in research,” she said.

That CMU hosts the program is a bonus. “Carnegie Mellon is my dream school,” Strassburg said. “I want to go there for grad school.”

In an undergraduate program, Strassburg is looking first for a school that will accept the 39 college credits she expects to leave high school with thanks to dual-enrollment classes through St. Bonaventure University. A school that will do that and offer some scholarships while she pursues degrees in mathematics and biochemistry is the goal.

She credited her advisor, John Fedak, with bringing the Governor’s School to her attention. It’s not something students talk about much. Strassburg believes she will be the first Warren County School District student to attend the program since 2002 and perhaps the seventh ever.

Strassburg also singled out WAHS science teachers Michelle Lauffenburger and Danette Hedman for their efforts.

“She has a very good lab technique,” Lauffenburger said of Strassburg. “She is very patient and thorough and observes everything. I’m not surprised she wants to go into research. She’s going to be very good at it.”

When Strassburg had to write about her “most-influential person” for the application, she chose Kellie Blasco, her math teacher at the former Learning Enrichment Center.

“She always pushed me to be the best so that I would be recognized,” Strassburg said of Blasco. “Without her, I don’t think I would have even applied.”

After college, Strassburg has lofty goals involving nanodrugs and gene sequencing. That combination, she said, could allow for the treatment of cancer cells without the widespread bombardment of non-cancer cells that is a consequence of chemotherapy.

Research along that path “could result in a cure for cancer,” she said. “I want to help solve problems on an individual basis.”

That is years away. Her time at the Governor’s School starts next month.

“I am so excited,” Strassburg said. “I think it’s going to be hard, but I am going to love it.”