Summer Internships Encourage High School Students to Pursue Careers in Science

Award-Winning Program Exposes Students to Hands-On Lab Work

By Patricia Yollin

Andrea Lopez knows that she could easily be doomed by her demographic: She is 17, Latina and the mother of a baby boy. Statistics say it’s likely she’ll never finish high school.

Lopez says otherwise. She decided not to let statistics dictate her future. Not only did she stay in school, Lopez recently completed the 2012 High School Summer Intern Program run by the Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP) at UCSF.

“At one point I was going to drop out, but my mother told me I needed something to offer my son,” said Lopez, one of 20 San Francisco public high school students chosen for the program that last year received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

The internships involve placing students in laboratories to conduct biomedical research under the supervision of UCSF mentors. Eight grueling but satisfying weeks culminated in a July 26 poster session and celebration at the Millberry Union Conference Center on the Parnassus campus attended by leaders of UCSF and the San Francisco Unified School District.

“Right now you may just be visiting, but one day you’re going to own this place,” San Francisco schools superintendent Richard Carranza told the interns, who were joined by relatives, friends and teachers celebrating their achievement.

Katherine Nielsen, co-director of SEP, said the partnership has touched 45 percent of SFUSD’s 55,000 students and that UCSF volunteers have given more than 10,000 hours.

SEP High School Summer Intern Program, 2001-2010

  • # of Interns: 158
  • % of Interns with Under-Represented Minority Backgrounds: 47%
  • % of Women Interns: 68%
  • % of Interns Whose Parents Are Not College Graduates: 74%
  • % of Interns Who Go on to College: 92%
  • % of Interns Who Received Undergraduate Degree in Science: 76%
  • % of Interns Who Pursue Graduate Study: 87%

For more information, go to SEP's website

About 92 percent of past summer interns, all from disadvantaged backgrounds, have gone on to college and three-quarters of them have majored in science. Eighty-seven percent of program alumni have pursued postgraduate education.

“One word captures what this program means, and that is opportunity,” said UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH.

Lopez, who attends the pregnant minors program at Hilltop School, spent her internship in a neurology lab at Mission Bay on work that was detailed in her poster: “Understanding How To Prevent a New Generation of Victims Against Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.”

A Remarkable Experience

“The experience was remarkable. What I liked most was being hands-on in the lab,” said Lopez, who hopes to study psychology at San Francisco State University.

Panos Theofilas, one of her UCSF mentors, said she was adept at balancing the demands of the internship with taking care of her 1½-year-old son. Lopez said her husband, Josias, was a huge help, cutting back his hours as a pizzeria cashier to make sure she had time to study.

“I was not worried at all,” said Josias Zarate, 19, who brought their baby to come support his wife, along with Lopez’s mother, grandmother, three of her four siblings and her cousin. “I’m proud of what Andrea has done and of what she’s going to do in the future.”

“I was sad but now I’m also proud,” said the intern’s mother, Ana del Carmen Lopez, an immigrant from Guatemala.

Lopez’s high school teacher, Joseph Alter, said she was the first Hilltop student ever in SEP’s summer internship program. He added that two UCSF students, both women, had a real impact when they visited the school.

“Sometimes the girls think, ‘No one cares about me. I’m a teen mom.’ UCSF plays a big role in not making them feel written off,” Alter said.

Lea Grinberg, MD, PhD, an assistant UCSF professor in neurology, said she enjoyed her experience so much as a mentor last year that she volunteered again this summer. “Having young people in the lab, always asking questions, takes us out of our comfort zone. It’s like in my house, if I have a guest, I try to straighten things up,” Grinberg said.

Abraham Lincoln High School student Felicity Jika, 16, whose poster was “Effect of pH variation on the structure of CYP119,” said the SEP program was difficult at first, especially mastering the language and machines.

“Repetition helped,” Jika said. “And it was fun working with proteins and enzymes.”

Besides working in labs, the interns went on a field trip to UC Davis, visited the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and met as a group once a week, learning useful things such as how to apply to college and how to do presentations. At the poster session, the interns used those presentation skills to explain their projects.

“How much did you know before you got into this?” someone asked Richard Lee, whose poster was “Expression of an HIV Protein in Bacteria.”

“I just knew that HIV was bad,” said Lee, 17, of Mission High.

He said science was a subject he always really liked and thought he had lab experience in school. “But I had maybe 20 minutes of burning something up, and that was it,” he said. “This was completely different.”

Irene Medina, 16, who arrived in San Francisco almost two years ago from El Salvador, told one curious onlooker how her project is attempting to aid babies who suffer from hypoxia ischemia, a brain injury caused by a loss of blood and oxygen, by using a rat model for experiments.

“The implication is that you’re learning something that can help in real infants,” said the onlooker, who Medina later realized was Desmond-Hellmann. “You’re explaining it well. I’m getting it.”

Before heading off to the next poster, the chancellor asked Medina, “Was it fun?”

“It was great,” Medina replied.

Photos by Susan Merrell