Should You Attend The Summer Science Program?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Group of students reading on a bench.

Should You Attend The Summer Science Program?

Pre-college programs are an effective way to improve ones self, especially for students interested in STEM careers. A prestigious program like the Summer Science Program (SSP) helps with college applications by letting you explore your interests and learn skills outside of the classroom. But is this program worth all of your commitment and money?

To help you get started, we’ve compiled this guide on SSP and if it’s worth considering!

What is the Summer Science Program about?

The Summer Science Program (SSP) is a respected residential program for high schoolers looking to deepen their understanding of STEM through immersive learning and research. The longest-running precollege program in the county and run by its former faculty and alumni, the SSP allows you to enroll in intensive courses in the field of astrophysics, biochemistry, genomics, and synthetic chemistry, getting hands-on experience in real scientific research.

Since it was founded in 1959, the Summer Science Program has stayed up to date with modern advancements by regularly updating its curriculum. Industry experts and Nobel laureates mentor participants, offering guidance with their expertise.

The SSP combines academic talents, hands-on research, and a supportive community to create an environment that aspiring scientists worldwide strive to be a part of. Its prestige and the real-world experience you get from it make it one of the most influential summer programs around.

In teams of three, 36 or 24 participants and 8 faculty members come together to create a supportive “living and learning community” for around 5 weeks. Each team takes on a genuine research project, gathering and analyzing original data. Once completed, participants become part of a global network of over 2,500 alumni. In 2024, the program will conduct 12 programs which we will discuss further below.

How does the Summer Science Program work?

According to the organizers, the Summer Science Program isn’t a “camp”; it’s about research, not coursework. Participants work in teams of three, learning from and teaching each other. While there is a Code of Honor, there are no tests or grades. Regardless of the project, location, or year, the program consistently leaves a lasting impact on all participants.

Group of students standing on a room.

At SSP, you’ll spend six days each week for five weeks in classroom and lab sessions, complemented by guest lectures and other activities. Each team will collaborate with at least seven faculty members to conduct research from start to finish, including data acquisition, analysis, and reporting. For the 2024 edition of the program, the available projects include 12 programs in the following fields:

Field Concentration Location
Astrophysics 12 programs near-earth asteroid orbit determination New Mexico State University

University of Colorado Boulder

Georgia College & State University

UNC-Chapel Hill

Biochemistry 3 programs fungal crop pathogens Purdue University

Indiana University

Genomics 3 programs evolution of antibiotic resistance Indiana University

Georgetown University

Purdue University

Synthetic Chemistry 1 program creation of novel macrocyclic drugs Southwestern Oklahoma State University

Astrophysics – Near-earth Asteroid Orbit Determination

In the Astrophysics course, you’ll focus on the Orbit Determination Project. You’ll use professional telescopes to observe asteroids, collect data, and analyze them to calculate their orbits. On the first day, participants learn about celestial coordinates and how to read an ephemeris to choose a near-Earth asteroid for study. Each team of three writes an “observing proposal,” much like an astronomer would submit to an observatory. By the third night, teams begin their telescope observation sessions.

After each observation, the team identifies the asteroid’s faint dot among the background stars (which isn’t always easy) and measures its exact position relative to the surrounding stars. Once they’ve gathered at least three or four observations from different nights, they write Python software to calculate the asteroid’s position and velocity vectors. These are then converted into six orbital elements that define the asteroid’s orbital ellipse using numerical differentiation.

Each team manages every step themselves: selecting their asteroid, aiming the telescope, capturing images, processing data, and calculating the orbit.

Three students talking to a teacher while on a hallway.

Here are the topics typically covered during the entire course:

  1. Mathematics: Numerical methods, differential and integral vector calculus, interpolation, coordinate transformations, and differential equations.
  2. Astronomy: Digital observational techniques, celestial coordinates, astrometry, and brief overviews of cosmology and planetary science.
  3. Scientific Programming: Python coding.
  4. Physics: Gravitation, celestial mechanics, the electromagnetic spectrum, relativity, and quantum mechanics.

Biochemist – Fungal Crop Pathogens

The Fungal Crop Pathogen project gives you a better understanding of medicinal chemistry and bioinformatics. You’ll analyze the structure and function of crucial enzymes in fungal pathogens, using computer-aided design tools to create potential inhibitors that could aid in creating new antifungal drugs. This course combines biology, chemistry, and computational science, teaching you molecular modeling, understanding biochemical pathways, and the core principles of drug design and development.

You’ll learn the basics of enzyme structure, function, and evolution. Teams of three members will use lab experiments and computational tools to study an enzyme related to fungal pathogens affecting crops—one that hasn’t been modeled before. Your team’s enzyme model will be added to a database that other scientists can access. Afterward, your team will design a molecule meant to bind to the enzyme and inhibit its activity, protecting crops from the fungus.

This project involves forming hypotheses based on existing information, critically analyzing new experimental results, and using this data in the drug design process. You’ll engage with practical aspects of modern biochemical research, helping you develop a strategic approach to biochemical challenges.

Genomics – The Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance

In the Genomics research project, you’ll explore synthetic biology by manipulating DNA to see how mutations impact protein function. Through various experiments, you’ll use evolutionary principles to engineer proteins with specific traits, gaining insights into genetic sequences, protein expression, and how natural selection shapes biological functions.

Each team of three participants will use a custom chemostat to maintain the steady growth of Vibrio natriegens, a harmless ocean microbe, under moderate antibiotic selection pressure. This setup includes systems for mixing and aerating the growth medium, optical monitoring of growth rates, and feedback control for adding antibiotics to the culture. The teams will then identify and map the genetic mutations that arise from incomplete growth suppression.

Staying true to SSP’s philosophy of “no black boxes,” the faculty will cover the scientific and engineering principles that teams will apply in their research:

  • Instrumentation: Integral feedback control and optical measurement.
  • Mathematics: Linear and nonlinear curve fitting, rate equations, and biostatistics.
  • Microbiology: Growth dynamics and bacterial life cycle.
  • Bioinformatics: Genome assembly (de novo and from reference genomes), gene annotation, SNP calling, and read trimming.
  • Genetics: DNA manipulation, genetic evolution, PCR, and sequence analysis.

Synthetic Chemistry – Creation of Novel Macrocyclic Drugs

The Synthetic Chemistry research project will teach you how to design and conduct experiments to create organic compounds. You’ll explore organic chemistry principles, like reaction mechanisms, purification techniques, and analytical methods such as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) and Infrared Spectroscopy (IR). Your work will focus on synthesizing molecules with potential uses in pharmaceuticals, materials science, or as probes in biological systems.

Participants will gain a foundational understanding of organic and inorganic chemistry, including de novo synthesis and downstream characterization of organic and inorganic molecules. Each team of three will conduct bench experiments to synthesize a novel macrocyclic compound from scratch, with each participant ideally creating a unique macrocyclic ligand analog by incorporating a metal ion for structural stabilization.

three students studying outside

The project begins with concepts typically covered in 200-level Organic I and II college courses and advances to inorganic and coordination chemistry topics often reserved for 300- to 400-level courses for chemistry majors. The lab work requires meticulous attention to detail, strict adherence to safety protocols, and continuous focus, as even a single misstep can impact the final synthesis yield. The classroom sessions and overall project demand a deep understanding of chemical reactions, a keen eye for analyzing characterization spectra, and a collaborative spirit to achieve the team’s goals.

SSP Synthetic Chemistry typically covers the following topics:

  1. Inorganic and Coordination Chemistry: Inert atmosphere techniques like Schlenk line and glovebox methods, transition metal complexing.
  2. Organic Chemistry: Amine chemistry, oxidation, reduction, carbon-carbon bond formation reactions, multistep organic synthesis, and purification using chromatography, vacuum distillation, and recrystallization; lab safety techniques.
  3. Compound Characterization: Cyclic voltammetry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, magnetic moment determination, mass spectrometry, conductance experiments, UV-visible spectroscopy, IR spectroscopy, and crystal growth and selection for X-ray crystallography.

Who is eligible to join the Summer Science Program?

High school juniors, or exceptional sophomores, aged 15 to 19 during the program can apply. Candidates are evaluated through a thorough, need-blind process that identifies students who excel in the toughest STEM courses and show strong motivation to tackle challenges.

Applicants must meet prerequisite requirements by completing a relevant course for credit and receiving a grade by June. Advanced Placement (AP) or higher-level courses aren’t mandatory, but self-study should fulfill the prerequisite criteria. Applicants who haven’t taken the necessary courses will not be eligible to apply.

Program Level Prerequisites
Astrophysics Junior (11th Grade) Physics (any level of high school physics), Precalculus
Astrophysics Sophomore (10th grade) Physics (any level), Calculus
Biochemistry Junior or Sophomore Biology, Chemistry, exceptional Algebra skills
Genomics Junior or Sophomore Biology, Algebra II
Synthetic Chemistry Junior or Sophomore Chemistry, excellent Algebra skills

How to Apply to the Summer Science Program

The Summer Science Program application is free. Before starting your application, explore the pages under the “Explore” tab on the website. Confirm you meet the prerequisites and decide between Astrophysics, Biochemistry, or Genomics, as you can only apply to one.

The SSP application form is detailed and requires the following:

  • A primary application form with your basic information.
  • A short-answer section with essays to express your background and interests.
  • Official high school transcripts.
  • At least two teacher evaluations, with an optional third. Ideally, these evaluations should come from your current science and/or math teachers.

All application components can be completed online, but if you need to send materials, ensure that all required parts are received (not postmarked) by 11:59 PM Pacific time on February 16. Materials can be emailed to [email protected] or mailed to:

SSP Admissions

11010 Lake Grove Blvd, Ste 100418

Morrisville, NC 27560

Admissions decisions will be made for all applicants in mid-April. Notifications will be sent via email and posted on your application’s status page. Accepted applicants will receive instructions to apply for financial aid before enrollment.

Cost and Financial Aid

The program costs $8,800. However, keep in mind that the application is free.

In addition, generous financial aid is available. In the 2023 edition, 44% of participants received financial aid, and half were fully funded. The program fee is adjusted based on each family’s financial capacity. You can find more details here:

  • Families earning less than $75,000 will likely qualify for a fully waived fee (the Summer Science Program is free) and travel expenses.
  • Families earning less than $140,000 will likely be eligible for a partially discounted fee.
  • Families earning more than $140,000 may still qualify for a partially reduced fee, depending on individual circumstances.

The fee, regardless of the amount paid, is comprehensive covering tuition, supplies, local transportation, and room and board.

View of students using computers.

The Summer Science Program also provides a limited number of $3,000 “lost wages” stipends for students who usually work over the summer. These stipends are available upon request during the admissions process and come in addition to financial aid.

Program Schedules for the Summer Science Program 2024

Take note of the important dates for the 2024 edition of the program:

Event Schedule
Open application December 22, 2023
Application deadline February 16. 2024
Decision notification Mid-April 2024
Start of program Mid-June 2024

The dates change every year. We recommend checking the official website for updates and changes to the rule and timeline.

How Can You Excel in the Program? 5 Practical Steps to Maximize Your Experience

Excelling in the Summer Science Program requires strategic planning, collaboration, and proactive learning. These five tips will help you make the most of this immersive experience. Use them to prepare yourself for success in this intensive STEM research journey.

  1. Form a Study Schedule Early: Create a structured daily routine to balance lectures, lab work, and study sessions. Set aside time for reviewing class materials and refining lab techniques, so you’re organized, less stressed, and well-prepared for project milestones.
  2. Embrace Peer Learning: Share knowledge with teammates and peers. Group study sessions or brainstorming can help you learn different perspectives, strengthen problem-solving skills, and solidify your understanding.
  3. Leverage Faculty Office Hours: Use office hours strategically by coming prepared with specific questions or challenges from your coursework or research. Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions to access the faculty’s expertise and get personalized advice. They can offer insights on your project, recommend readings, clarify tough concepts, or suggest techniques to improve your work.
  4. Document Your Learning Process: This journal should also include questions or ideas that emerge during the research process, as well as notes from discussions with faculty or peers. These combined records will help you identify trends, learn from your mistakes, and recognize patterns that can be valuable for future research projects. Your journal should also capture questions or ideas that come up during research, along with notes from discussions with faculty or peers. Together, these records can help you identify trends, learn from mistakes, and spot patterns valuable for future projects.
  5. Network Beyond Your Colleague: Join guest lectures, workshops, and networking events to connect with SSP alumni and visiting scientists. These connections can offer career insights, collaborative opportunities, and research advice. Stay in touch with them even after the program ends for continued support.

Should you consider joining?

Whether you should join the Summer Science Program depends on your academic interests, career goals, and readiness for intensive learning. If you’re passionate about STEM and want to explore real-world research, SSP is perfect. You’ll work and collaborate with like-minded students from different parts of the world and distinguished faculty while gaining hands-on experience in areas like Astrophysics, Biochemistry, and Synthetic Chemistry.

It is important to note that this is a challenging program and it requires curiosity, commitment, and teamwork. It will also consume more than just 5 weeks of your time if you factor in the hours spent on your preparation. If you’re driven to expand your scientific knowledge and prepare for future STEM careers, the Summer Science Program could be a perfect fit.

On the other hand, if you’re only doing it to improve your academic profile and do not have a genuine passion or love for science and research, we highly recommend that you choose something else instead. Choose a program that excites you, that sparks joy. Remember that this program is not cheap. Financial programs are available but it does come with costs. So, if you want to go this route, be sure that you are genuinely interested in the program.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Summer Science Program

1. Does the program help me prepare for college?

Although the Summer Science Program isn’t a college preparatory course, it will still help you better understand yourself and your interest in STEM. You’ll enhance skills like teamwork, reading primary literature, communication, time management, and intrinsic motivation while conducting authentic scientific research with unpredictable outcomes. 

Beyond academics, the program helps you through the social aspects of campus life, providing practical insights into surviving and flourishing college. After SSP, you’ll have a clearer sense of yourself, which will strengthen your college applications and help you excel as a student. Plus, engaging in hardcore research will reveal if a STEM path matches your goals.

2. If my school doesn’t offer ‘pre-calculus,’ am I able to apply for the program and choose Astrophysics still?

By “pre-calc,” the program is referring to trigonometry and matrices. If you’ve taken a course that includes these topics, you’re eligible to apply.

3.  Can I choose to be on more than one project/program?

No, you have to pick one project when registering. You can switch while the application is open, but no changes are allowed after the deadline. We recommend reviewing each project under the “Explore” tab on our website and applying to the one that interests you most. Don’t overthink it—trust your instincts. 

4. Will transportation be provided to and from the airport?

Yes, detailed travel instructions and other guidelines are included in the enrollment documents provided to admitted students.

5. Does SSP provide any materials I can include in my college application?

SSP provides a certificate of completion that you can include in your college application. In addition, many students ask their SSP instructors for letters of recommendation, which can be valuable due to the close mentorship you receive during the program.

The Summer Science Program is designed to prepare you for the challenges and opportunities of a STEM career. With its mix of academic skills, hands-on research, and a supportive network of peers, faculty, and mentors, SSP is a place to nurture your passion for STEM.

Whether you want to learn practical skills in astrophysics or biochemistry, or form student-mentor relationships, SSP provides a great environment to expand your scientific understanding of things and prepare for the next step in your college experience and, ultimately, your STEM journey.


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