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The solar system drew in Anna Aaronsen of Petaluma when she was 8 years old.

"I loved to read fantasy books so I was amazed to find that there was something equally amazing beyond our world," she said.

That seed of fascination has developed into a passion for theoretical physics and astronomy.

Now Aaronson, 15, is pursuing those interests at Sonoma State University, where she is monitoring gamma rays under the guidance of physics professor Lynn Cominsky.

"I've gotten a taste of what it's like to be a scientist, for sure," said the Sonoma Academy junior.

She was assigned the project in a SSU summer internship program that connects some of Sonoma County's top students with faculty on university research projects.

"These are the best and brightest of Sonoma County high school students," said Lynn Stauffer, Dean of the SSU School of Science and Technology.

"These are not toy projects," Stauffer said. "This is all novel research. The things the students are working on haven't been done before and they are of publishable quality."

In a SSU laboratory this week, Kelly Jackson, 17, guided a visitor through a computerized map of a water quality measurement and monitoring system.

The Petaluma High School student knows it inside out; her finger races across the screen like a cursor. She designed it from scratch and it will be put into action this fall.

Jackson's project arose from one led by engineering professor Farid Farahmand to examine the university community's effect on Copeland Creek, which runs through the campus.

SSU students created other parts of the monitoring system, Farahmand said, but Jackson was assigned a key element, to figure out how best to capture real time data about pollution, temperature and water volume.

"It's not just some abstract thing," Farahmand said. "It's being used to build something that's going to help us understand our environment."

Jackson said it's a different classroom experience than in high school.

"I feel like I got a lot more actual job experience. It's more of seeing the problem and saying, 'How can I fix this,' " she said. "In high school it's more a list of steps, 'This is what you're going to.' "

Working next to Jackson is Connor Rutten, 17, a Maria Carrillo senior. The solar power system he built and is fine-tuning runs Jackson's water monitoring system.

It required multiple disciplines, he said, from mechanical engineering to telecommunications to computer coding.

The lessons go well beyond the hands-on.

Rutten is trying to decide what branch of engineering he wants to pursue. Now he knows that circuits aren't his thing.

"I do not want to be an electrical engineer," he said. "I've learned something else about myself and what I want to do in the future."

Ten students take part every year. They are chosen from about 30 applicants for their intellectual curiosity and commitment to the sciences. Each gets a $1,000 stipend, funded by the Sonoma County Office of Education.

"We're really interested in students who going back to their senior year so they can communicate their experience here," Stauffer said. "The importance of this connection with SSU and the unique experience that SSU offers."

You can reach Staff Writer

Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.