SEP High School Internship Program Feeds Pipeline of Promising Students

Hira Safdar, 17, left, who attends Burton Academic High School, talked about her research to colleagues following an internship program at UCSF where she spent her “best summer ever.”

By Victoria Schlesinger

There’s nothing like hearing about cutting-edge research from a high school student to remind oneself that the next generation of researchers is bright and bursting with promise.

A recent gathering of 20 San Francisco United School District high school juniors, who spent the summer working as interns under the tutelage of UCSF staff in labs throughout the campus, was just such an inspiring event.

“The difference between being in a lab and an [Advanced Placement] biology class, is that they’re doing cutting-edge science,” said Andrew Grillo-Hill, PhD, academic coordinator for UCSF’s Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP). “They’re doing the science their mentor is doing.”

One of several UCSF programs to reach out to students, SEP’s high school summer internship is seeking funds to continue the program next summer now that its current grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is complete. Other SEP programs focus on partnering UCSF volunteers with K-12 teachers to support classroom science teaching.

Some 170 people — including Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, interns, their families, teachers and UCSF lab mentors — turned out for a poster session, designed to replicate a science conference, where young interns displayed and explained the research in their assigned labs. Topics ranged from genotyping mutant zebrafish to studying metastatic breast cancer cells.

“One of the great joys of being chancellor is the SEP program and this growing partnership between UCSF and the San Francisco School District,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “That’s our pipeline. That’s our future.”

Measuring Success

Since 2000, SEP has offered the internship program for exceptional young people who show promise in science and whose parents have limited education. This year’s interns hailed from 15 different district schools and their parents had little to no college experience.

Yasmin Bhatti, left, who attends Mission High School, receives her diploma after completing the UCSF SEP summer internship program from academic coordinators Jean MacCormack and Andrew Grillo-Hill.

The internship program places a strong emphasis on helping students prepare for college, an approach that’s had remarkable success. The national average for first-generation college students to attend college is 54 percent; where as 92 percent of SEP students ultimately complete a four-year degree. Another 90 percent of those go on to pursue advanced degrees.

“The longitudinal numbers are outstanding,” said Rebecca Smith, PhD, co-director of SEP. “They give me goose-bumps, particularly knowing some of the individual students and the hurdles they’ve jumped through to get to where they are.”

About 140 nominated students competed for the 20 summer internship slots. Teachers recommend students for the rigorous eight-week program, which requires interns to spend 180 hours, or roughly 20 hours a week, in the lab collecting data.

Hira Safdar, 17, who attends Burton Academic High School, worked in Andrei Goga’s lab. Goga, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine, studies cancer and genetics. Safdar spent her days learning about the role micro-RNAs play in regulating tumor-related genes and called it her “best summer ever.”

She compared the program to “giving a boost to a friend by interlocking your fingers. The program has given me my boost up.” Safdar plans to apply to University of California schools this fall, but has hopes of someday convincing her family she is ready to live on her own and attend an Ivy League school on the East Coast.

Providing Access and Opportunity

Principal investigators and graduate students working in the labs oversee the interns, exposing them to the rigors of scientific thinking. It is a significant time commitment, but well worth it, said Clement Cheung, MD, PhD, assistant adjunct professor in UCSF Department of Pediatrics.

Norma Jean Sackrider, 17, right, from Gateway High School, shared her findings on the neural pathways between a region of the hypothalamus and the rest of the brain to UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann.

Cheung worked with student Norma Jean Sackrider, 17, from Gateway High School, in the Ingraham Lab to understand the neural pathways between a region of the hypothalamus and the rest of the brain. The part of the hypothalamus under study is crucial to regulating obesity and metabolic systems. Sackrider’s job was to stain and compare brain sections of a model mouse, searching for signs that neural pathways emanated from the hypothalamus region.

“What I find most fulfilling,” Cheung wrote about the intern program in an email, “is to help a program that emphasizes identifying well-deserving students who may not have had the luxury to gain access to these opportunities in life. Norma is a prime example.”

Sackrider said that the internship program had left her more confident and with a new understanding that being a scientist means “you’re part of a huge community all over the world.”

Her research confirmed at least three specific neural pathways in the model mouse. “There are probably more, but I think Clement [Cheung] didn’t want to blow my mind with too much information,” Sackrider laughed.

The chancellor concluded her remarks at the poster and celebration event with words of advice inspired by Thomas Edison. “Tap into who you are and do what you’re capable of and I am very confident all you interns are going to astound us.”

Photos by Susan Merrell

Related Links:

Science & Health Education Partnership

Students Excited About UCSF Science Program
KGO News, June 11, 2010