UCSF Intern Program Wins Presidential Award for Mentoring Youth in Science

By Kevin Eisenmann

SEP ProgramChanelle 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 Summer Internship Program.

President Obama has named the Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP) High School Internship Program at UCSF as one of the 2011 recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, the White House announced Nov. 15.

Once an Intern, Now a Scientist: A Student’s Story

Wendy Huang was a junior at Mission High School in San Francisco when she took an interest in science. But as a recent immigrant to the United States, her English was poor and her family was struggling just to make ends meet.

Then Huang’s biology teacher told her about the Science & Health Education Partnership's High School Internship Program at UCSF. She applied, was accepted, and soon found herself working alongside Dean Sheppard, PhD, in UCSF’s Lung Biology Center. She learned how to use lab instruments, develop hypotheses, and test experiments. Writing exercises improved her grasp of English. Most importantly, Huang learned it was within her grasp to become a scientist.

Ten years after her graduation from the high school internship program, Huang has earned her PhD and now studies immunology at New York University Medical Center. “I wouldn’t be here had it not been for that experience,” she said. “If it takes a village to make a scientist, the [high school internship program] team was exactly the village for me.”

The UCSF internship program was one of only nine organizations cited, and one of two from California.

“Through their commitment to education and innovation, these individuals and organizations are playing a crucial role in the development of our 21st century workforce,” President Obama said in a prepared statement. “Our nation owes them a debt of gratitude for helping ensure that America remains the global leader in science and engineering for years to come.” 

The award will be given during a White House ceremony in December and will include a grant of $25,000 to advance mentoring efforts.

Since the UCSF SEP High School Internship Program began in 1989, nearly 250 students from San Francisco’s public schools have spent their summers conducting scientific research under the direction of UCSF scientist mentors while simultaneously learning how to maneuver the critical and difficult transition from high school to college. Fostering the next generation of scientists is seen as an important way for UCSF to fulfill its commitment to improving the health and feeding a pipeline of diverse students interested in science.

“It is an honor to have our work recognized at a national level,” said UCSF Professor Emeritus Bruce Alberts, PhD, co-founder of SEP.  “This Presidential Award recognizes the critical role of science education for the future and validates the extraordinary efforts of the students and scientists we work with.”

The intern program staff works with high school teachers to identify students for whom the internship will make a “critical difference.” In practice, the selection criteria is unique for each student and has included students with disabilities, those with several years experience in the foster care system, those who have struggled in the traditional high school environment, and students from immigrant families who have had limited exposure to science learning opportunities or who are confronted with cultural barriers to college.

The core of the high school intern program is immersion in the world-class research environment of UCSF. Students work on a research project designed by their mentors, with the projects often being a component of the mentor’s own research.

"Mentoring does take commitment, but that's partly why it's so effective," said Rebecca Smith, co-director of the Science & Health Education Partnership. "More often we see sustained interactions where students stay in contact with their mentors for years."

To win the award, the SEP submitted a narrative describing how the High School Summer Internship Program makes a critical difference in students' lives. The program works closely with San Francisco high school science teachers to identify students from disadvantaged backgrounds with significant potential. For example, the majority of high school interns come from families where neither parent has completed college. The education outcomes of students who participate in the internship program far exceed that of their peers - 92 percent matriculate to college, 76 percent complete Bachelor's degrees in the sciences, and 87 percent pursue post-baccalaureate degrees.

Photo by Susan Merrell

Follow Kevin Eisenmann on Twitter: @kevineisenmann

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