Program Helps Prepare Local Youth for Careers in Science

By Robin Hindery

Mauricio Mendoza-Perez, right, shows off the results of eight weeks of lab research under the guidance of postdoc Prachee Crofts, left, and other UCSF scientists.

It’s a resume builder any scientist would welcome: Two months of intensive lab work at one of the world’s leading centers for biomedical research.

This fall, 20 San Francisco teenagers will start their senior year of high school having done just that.

The students are the latest graduates of UCSF’s High School Summer Internship Program, which for the past two decades has offered young people with a passion for science and hands-on lab experience as well as an interest in college and career counseling.

The High School Summer Internship Program is part of the Science and Health Education Partnership (SEP), a collaboration between UCSF and the San Francisco Unified School District that promotes high-quality science education for K-12 students. Developing strong partnerships between the campus and the community is among the goals in the UCSF Strategic Plan, released in June 2007.

The interns must be nominated to the program by their high school science teacher. Those who are selected are paired with a mentor and a lab at one of four UCSF locations — Parnassus Heights, Mission Bay, San Francisco General Hospital and the San Francisco VA Medical Center — where they devote at least 180 hours to an original research project.

The program is extremely competitive — this year there were more than 160 applications for 20 spots — but participants are selected based on enthusiasm and promise, not grades or test scores, said Andrew Grillo-Hill, one of the program coordinators.

“Admission to the program is based on potential — the potential of the students themselves, but also the potential for us to make a critical difference in these students’ lives,” he said, noting that many of the interns come from households where English is not the primary language and where education has not extended beyond high school.

Golden Opportunity

“The internships are very much designed for students who are clearly interested in and inspired by science, but who, for a variety of reasons, haven’t gotten on a defined college or scientific career track,” added fellow coordinator Jean MacCormack. “We’re looking for students for whom this is a golden opportunity to have exposure to the real world of science and to a community where they can see the results of a college education.”

In addition to conducting research, the interns receive extensive counseling on how to select and apply to an appropriate college and navigate the complicated financial aid process. 

“This program really does everything,” said Kristin Patrick, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology who served as a mentor this summer. “There are all these things you might think are out of your reach until you get the right guidance.”

Patrick’s mentee, Josephina Najera, said she “really got excited about the whole college thing” after visiting UC Davis with her fellow interns. She said she is still deciding where to apply, but hopes to pursue her love of science wherever she ends up.

Intern Brandan Dotson, who worked in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Lung Biology, said his summer at UCSF offered him a taste of what a career in the sciences might be like — something he had previously only imagined.

“I always told myself I was interested in science, but I had no real experience to back that up until now,” he said at the end-of-program celebration on Aug. 6. “Now I know I want to study science in college and maybe go to grad school, too.”

The internship program has been unable to track all of its alumni, but of those it has followed, more than 90 percent have attended college and more than 80 percent have continued on to graduate or professional school.

Dean Sheppard, MD, professor of medicine and associate chair for Biomedical Research, whose lab hosted Brandan Dotson, has participated in the program for many years and has seen these promising statistics in action. “The first student I had, 12 years ago, is just finishing a PhD at UC San Diego,” he said.

First-time mentor Prachee Crofts, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, said the eight-week experience was as beneficial to the seasoned scientists as it was to their young protégés.

“Working with the students was very refreshing,” she said. “They’re looking at everything with new eyes, which is so fun for the rest of us to watch.” 

Photo by Robin Hindery

Related Links:

Science and Health Education Partnership

UCSF Strategic Plan