SEP Program Puts High School Students on Path to Grad School

student intern alums and Zheng

The end of July brought to a close eight transformative weeks for a small group of San Francisco high school students, who spent their summer doing mentored research in labs at UCSF. Twenty students participated in the High School Intern Program (HIP), which is run by the UCSF Science and Health Education Partnership.

Students in HIP presented posters about their summer research and were awarded certificates at a celebratory event on July 31. The sense of pride was palpable at the gathering, which included many of the students’ parents, siblings, high school teachers, and mentors. Graduate Division Dean and Vice Chancellor for Student Academic Affairs Elizabeth Watkins gave opening remarks and chatted with students about their research.

Susanna Zheng, one of the high school student participants, is a senior at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology HS on the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood. Zheng (student on left in photo) was bursting with enthusiasm for her experience at UCSF, where she was included in lab activities from research-focused meetings to a summer barbeque.

“This was the best summer of my whole life,” said Zheng, who studied microglia activation in a mouse model of neuropathic pain in the lab of Dr. Allan Basbaum. “Before I came to UCSF, I thought that scientists were super serious, but they are actually so much fun,” she said. “There is so much freedom to learn in the lab without the restrictions of a classroom.”

Julia Kuhn, a postdoc in the Basbaum Lab, and May Tran, a neuroscience graduate student, both spent time mentoring Zheng this summer. “It was an interesting challenge explaining our research to a high school student,” said Tran, who is also a Moritz-Heyman Discovery Fellow. Kuhn remarked that, while high school students in the program come away with a fairly basic understanding of the research going on in their labs at UCSF, they get a very strong understanding of the culture of science and what it’s like to study science at a high level.

Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics Barbara Panning, who previously hosted a HIP student in her lab, echoed Tran. "The UCSF High School Intern Program provides a valuable training opportunity for my postdocs and grad students. As a scientist, it is important that we are able to communicate our research to others. Having a high school student in the lab provided the opportunity for everyone in the lab to explain their projects in a way that made them relevant and interesting to a budding scientist. The direct mentor — usually a grad student or postdoc — benefits by developing supervisory skills: planning a project that could feasibly be completed and presented in a short time, as well as directing a student on a day-to-day basis. These skills are rarely formally taught, but are essential in any teaching or research career. Having a summer intern in the lab enriched the lab experience for everyone involved," she said.

SEP program co-directors Katherine Nielsen and Rebecca Smith have good reason to be optimistic that this year’s high school interns will go into the sciences and be successful. Over 90% of HIP alumni matriculate to college; 76% complete undergraduate degrees in the sciences; and an impressive 87% pursue graduate education. These figures significantly exceed national averages for students from similar backgrounds.

Having completed the Intern Program, student Aliyah Erazo, who interned in Dr. Dean Sheppard's Lab with Tetrad graduate student Joselyn Del Cid, now has set her sites on applying to UCLA in the fall. “Science is a lot of work, but it was amazing to see how much you can learn in one summer. I’m so excited for college now,” she said. That kind of says it all.

(Photo in "slider" on home page shows HIP intern, Anthony Hernandez from John O’Connell High School presenting his research poster to SEP college counselor, Michelle Channel. Photo by Mark Wooding.)

SEP supports science and health education for all students through partnerships between scientists and educators. In the High School Intern Program, San Francisco Unified School District students conduct scientific research projects under the guidance of UCSF mentors and engage in college and career exploration as part of paid summer internships. The High School Intern Program is funded by the UCSF Chancellor’s Office and School of Medicine, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Baskin Family Foundation, the NIH NICHD, and the generosity of private donors. SEP’s High School Intern Program was honored in 2011 with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. Visit the SEP website for more information.