By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When Marlene Lawston was 9 years old, she had a surgery that both healed and fascinated her.
“I woke up one day and I had a fever,” she said.
After visits to doctors and specialists, she found out she had a kidney infection.
“I was able to be cured with a minimally invasive surgery,” she said. “That really got me interested.”
Even though she was very young, Lawston said she recognized that just a decade or two earlier, the infection could’ve affected her health into adulthood. Instead, she had a clean bill of health in what was, comparatively, an instant.
But it wasn’t until seventh grade, a couple of years after she and her parents moved into the Niskayuna school district from Westchester County, that a teacher complimented her on her aptitude for math and science. The teacher recommended a science camp at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science program.
“That was the first time a teacher said, ‘Hey, you should be involved in this,’ ” she said.
The program, founded by ground-breaking astronaut Bernard Harris, involved a group research project and a ton of time interfacing with RPI professors and local research professionals. Lawston and her group excelled: After creating a plan for an imaginary mission to Mars on a $1 million budget, they were awarded the top prize that summer.
She was proud, and she was also hooked.
“I kept researching for more opportunities,” Lawston said. She couldn’t get enough of the programs at RPI, and has continued to return for various science classes there over the past several years. Though she’s a junior in high school and has plenty of time to make her college decisions, the experiences have led her to look forward to possibly enrolling at RPI one day, where she already has so many academic connections.
Though her introduction to scientific research was space exploration-oriented, she’s since shifted to an interest in biochemistry, in large part because of local volunteer work. Lawston helps out nurses at the Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Niskayuna, where she takes on tasks that range from making beds to bringing snacks and cheering patients up.
“I work with all types of recoveries,” she said. “Volunteers are really busy whenever we’re there.”
Lawston has been part of the program since the summer after her freshman year at Niskayuna High School.
“It’s really nice, when you help a patient and you know you’ve made their day,” she said.
Her favorite story from Sunnyview, so far, was a patient she helped who had suffered a stroke. At the beginning of that summer, Lawston often made the woman’s coffee, because she wasn’t well enough to do it herself. But by the end of her volunteer stint that year, when school opened again, the patient was able to make her own.
Seeing the ways medicine and medical technology can improve lives builds on Lawson’s awe at her surgery when she was a little girl, pushing her toward a career in medical research. While volunteering, she helps one person at a time; she hopes her professional life will allow her to help many more.
“There’s so much to learn about everyone,” she said. “Whenever I get the opportunity to help someone, I like to do that.”
In addition to volunteering at Sunnyview, Lawston also spends volunteer time helping kids realize their passions for science. She works at miSci in Schenectady and also participates in the Chem Demos club at Niskayuna High School, both organizations that teach kids about science in fun and interesting ways.
“As a young girl, no one ever said, ‘Look at this, this is chemistry,’ ” she said.
So she makes it her mission to make sure young kids who visit miSci or watch her club’s demonstrations discover the exciting facts about science that she stumbled on later, in middle school: for example, all the different combinations of chemicals that create fun results like sticky goo or small explosions.
“When you explain things to them, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, that makes a lot of sense,’ ” she said.
Helping kids make connections between science and their real lives always makes Lawston feel accomplished. Once, she was explaining how medications for cancer patients can involve a gel membrane on the outside of a pill full of liquid.
“One boy said, ‘It’s just like the little air freshener beads!’ ” she recalled. That moment made her especially proud, as did a science festival in 2014 when she and her friends showed kids how chemicals reacted in surprising ways.
“A lot of kids were saying, ‘I want to be a chemist,’ ” she said.
Though she enjoys teaching young kids, Lawston said she’s eager to move on from high school to college, where she can continue to absorb information about the cutting-edge medical technologies she hopes to one day work on.
“Education is really important to me,” she said. “I think using my knowledge to help other people is important.”