• Seven-year-old Juliana Bach uses drops of dye and floating beads to study the pattern of water movement in a shallow basin. Juliana conducted the experiment as part of her dream come true to be a "scientist for a day," enabled by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and MIT. Heidi Nepf, rear, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, came up with a number of experiments for Juliana to do.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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MIT hosts Make-A-Wish event


When I grow up, I want to be a scientist. How many MIT students uttered these words when they were children? Though not an MIT student, Juliana Bach, a 7-year-old from Miami, discovered her passion for science at a young age. On Tuesday, Nov. 13, MIT, in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, made her wish to be a scientist come true.

As Juliana works in the lab, she looks like a miniature scientist, wearing a white lab coat with her name stitched across the front. With her earnest demeanor and straight posture, Juliana exhibits all the characteristics of an eager science student. The only indications of her young age are the pink pants peeking out from below her lab coat, the high ponytail swinging on top of her head, and her tiny infectious giggle. What her physical appearance and positive demeanor cannot tell you, however, is that Juliana has leukemia.

Juliana's parents approached the Make-A-Wish Foundation about her desire to be to a scientist and were promptly directed to MIT, which was delighted to host her on campus. Juliana's requests while at MIT were to experiment with chemical reactions, discover how liquids change color, find out why there are different colors of sand, and make "goop."

Juliana first met with Heidi Nepf, director of the Environmental Fluid Mechanics Lab and professor of civil and environmental engineering. Nepf worked with Juliana to demonstrate aspects of how water moves in rivers, lakes and the coastal zone. The experiments were all based on previous or current research in Nepf's laboratory, but scaled down in size and concept to be understandable to a 7-year-old.

"She looks at Heidi with awe, like she's Santa Claus," said Juliana's father, Charles Julian. He said that Juliana has been doing her own science experiments for as long as he can remember, mixing together kitchen items such as salt and water and experimenting with chemistry sets to test acids and bases.

Professor Philip Gschwend of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering was the second MIT professor to work with Juliana. They worked together to find out if the lakes in Florida, Michigan and Massachusetts might be sensitive to pollution from acid rain, with associated risks for the animals and plants living in them. In their second experiment, they created a material, or "goop," that might be a useful substitute for rubber.

"I enjoyed preparing for Juliana's visit, and I used my own daughters, ages 6 and 8, to test each of the experiments in advance. In fact, this was an essential step, because not everything worked as smoothly as I initially thought," said Nepf. "Juliana seemed to enjoy her visit tremendously. Her curiosity and enthusiasm reminded me of how fun research really is."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 28, 2007 (download PDF).


Topics: Environment, Volunteering, outreach, public service

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