UCSF Summer Interns Gain Glimpse of a Scientific Future

Patricia Yollin on August 04, 2011
Chanelle Dorton, Bruce Alberts and Keith Yamamoto

Chanelle Dorton, left, a student from Thurgood Marshall High School and an intern with the Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP) program, explains her Alzheimer's research to Bruce Alberts, PhD, co-founder of SEP, and Keith Yamamoto, PhD, vice chancellor for research, at the poster session and celebration of the SEP High School s|Summer Internship Program.

For as long as she can remember, 17-year-old Chanelle Dorton has wanted to be a crime scene investigator. She put aside that notion, however, after she failed a few science classes and kept missing school to take care of younger siblings.

Now her dream has been resurrected. Chanelle is one of 20 students from public schools in San Francisco who completed the High School Summer Internship Program run by UCSF’s Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP). On the evening of July 28, they celebrated with a poster session at the Millberry Union Conference Center on the Parnassus campus.

“I did it and I’m glad I did it,” Chanelle said with the hugest of smiles.

For eight weeks, she and her 19 peers worked side by side with UCSF mentors, conducting biomedical research in laboratories. The posters, similar to the kind found at scientific conferences, helped show off their projects as the students explained their work to a stream of visitors, including scientists, teachers, friends and relatives.

“Now they see a different world,” said Bruce Alberts, PhD, UCSF professor emeritus of biochemistry and biophysics, editor-in-chief of Science magazine and former president of the National Academy of Sciences.

That’s why Alberts co-founded SEP in 1987. “I just wish we could have 100 of these,” he said as he looked at the 20 students standing with pride and authority in front of their posters.

The students had just finished their junior year in 14 schools in the San Francisco Unified School District. Nine are Latino, seven are of Asian/Pacific Islander descent and four are African American. Most are from disadvantaged backgrounds and could become the first in their families to attend college.

Students Trade Frustration for Satisfaction

Students must complete 180 hours during the program, of which 140 are spent in their labs. The remaining 40 hours are devoted to other components, including college guidance, college writing workshops and weekly meetings with all interns.

“It went great,” said Chanelle, who attends Thurgood Marshall Academic High School and whose project, focused on Alzheimer’s disease, was titled “Optimization of a novel antibody against acetylated tau protein for immunohistochemistry.”

“Sometimes I was frustrated and I wanted to cry,” she said. “I had to do calculus. But I thought, ‘I’m doing this for a good cause.’ Most people in school would get tired of me asking questions. But here I’d ask the same thing three times and it was fine.”

As a result of the internship, Chanelle wants to go to college and major in psychology. Just a few months ago, that seemed inconceivable because, as one of three sets of twins in her family, Chanelle would skip school or show up late because much of her energy was focused on a younger brother with autism. After awhile, it all seemed hopeless.

“I used to hate presentations,” Chanelle said. “Now I know that I know what I’m talking about. I’m not scared because I have the facts to back it up. I learned some things about myself, especially that I am capable of doing this.”

As she explained how Alzheimer’s disease works to those who stopped by to check out her poster, her mentor watched with quiet satisfaction.

“It’s a very rewarding experience to have a student as engaged as Chanelle,” said Lea Grinberg, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at UCSF. “It’s amazing to see how she has bloomed.”

Transformation by Summer’s End

Jean MacCormack, an academic coordinator with SEP, has watched that process unfold time and again.

“In the beginning of the summer there’s a fair amount of apprehension,” MacCormack told the 155 people in the conference center just before the interns received their certificates. “Eight weeks later, they have not only carried out research projects but have become members of their labs. We are excited that the program really does result in transformation.”

The projects were an eclectic mix. Titles included: "MRI imaging of tumors in the brains of mice," "How to determine the size of DNA, "Making cancer cells sweet on sugar," and “Chicks with glowing green eyes: tracking the development of the optic cup.”

Eduardo Montoya, 17, worked in a lab in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery that is studying tendons and trying to figure out if cells can somehow be signaled to heal themselves after they have been injured.

“My sister is a registered nurse and that inspired me,” said Eduardo, who goes to Raoul Wallenberg High School. “To me it would be a dream to work with her. I want to be a doctor and give back to the community.”

The interns’ summer included a trip to UC Davis, a campus Eduardo knew nothing about. Now he wants to apply there for college.

Amy He, who goes to Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, worked in a lab studying amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), with the goal of determining whether this irreversible neurodegenerative condition can be detected earlier so that patients can be treated immediately.

“It was better than I expected,” Amy said. “These experiments are actually fun. And it’s just cool to be able to do things you wouldn’t be able to do in school, like genotyping.”

She worked with Amy Tang, who probably holds the mentorship record: Six times and counting. A staff research associate in neurobiology, Tang herself was an intern in 1997, a year after she immigrated from Hong Kong with little English and even less confidence.

“I like seeing how they grow up as a person,” said Tang, who can glimpse her own metamorphosis through the struggles of her students. “I know how intimidating the environment can be. They tend to be really shy, but they become more outgoing and passionate and they express their opinions by the end.” She added that her first mentee just graduated from the University of Chicago.

Most interns attend college. For example, 95 percent of the students in the 2010 program are going on to college: 60 percent to a UC school, 20 percent to a community college, 10 percent to California State University, and 5 percent to a private university.

Andrew Grillo-Hill, an academic coordinator with SEP, said he still hears from people who went through the internship program, which started in 1989. For instance, Michelle Guan, a 2009 intern, got back in touch in May as she was finishing her first year at UC Irvine.

“Being a part of SEP has helped my entire life a great deal,” she said in an e-mail. “Not only did SEP make my senior year a breeze, but also my confidence and maturity grew immensely. … I cannot imagine my life right now without the encouragement of everyone from SEP.”

Photo by Susan Merrell