By Jennifer O'Sullivan
The team of 2002 interns (pictured here
with program organizer Jennifer O'Sullivan, top left) learned
about scientific research in a working lab this summer. Photo
by Jason S. Bardi.
Unambiguous confirmation. Experimental success. Timely results.
These are to scientists what touchdowns are to football teamspositive
outcomes resulting from well planned and adroitly executed
work, mixed with the occasional dash of serendipity. Such
"pure scores" are also what students typically experience
in the high school laboratory due to constraints of time and
resources. However, the work performed by local high school
students and teachers as part of the 2002 Summer Internship
Program at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) provided
an enlightening look at what occurs in a working scientific
research lab. The field goals, fumbles, and interceptions,
if you will.
"In the classroom, an experiment is designed to provide
perfect results if the directions are followed correctly,"
says Rebecca Braden, a biology teacher at University of San
Diego High School who interned with Assistant Professor Monica
Carson in the Department of Molecular Biology. "In the lab
here [at TSRI], that isn't always the case. You must identify
errors and unexpected relationships, then either repeat the
experiment or restructure it."
Working in a research lab for two months, Braden notes,
allows time for interns to learn that repetition and unexpected
results are a part of the process and not a sign of failure.
Under one of the program requirements for teacher interns
to develop a lesson plan for future use, Braden has created
a biotechnology curriculum designed to give students a clearer
understanding of unpredictable aspects of lab work and to
foster independent study skills, effective communication,
and basic bench skills. Mt. Miguel student LaRena Woods, interning
in the lab of Assistant Professor Z.K. Pan in the Department
of Molecular and Experimental Medicine, also learned first-hand
that results from a working lab can surprise and is now familiar
with the concept of a partially successful experiment.
The goal of the experiment on which she assisted was to
clone, isolate, and purify a specific proteingeneral
flourescent protein (GFP). Using two different methods, Woods
successfully isolated and purified GFP; however, the level
of concentration was not as high as planned.
"We also discovered an error in our results. Two bands were
present when we tested the purified protein samples by electrophoresis,"
she reported at the final program on August 16, at which the
18 students and three teachers in the summer internship program
presented their work. "An explanation for this second band
may be that in E.coli there was actually another protein that
also binds to glutathione. Another reason may be that the
plasmid pGEX that was used was not homogeneous, which might
have resulted in a mutation."
Also unlike science tutorials in a classroom, research in
a working lab is open-ended, as Mt. Miguel High School student
Reinhart Arquiza discovered. After working with Drs. Clint
Potter and Bridget Carragher in the Automated Molecular Imaging
Group, he has a new perspective on the work of a scientist:
"You're working for this solution that no one has the answer
to and you eventually have [to come up with something]. It's
like trying to find the meaning of life with some clues and
Interns also learned that real-life science is played as
a team sport. The opportunity to work as part of a research
team and contribute to a project is what interns cite most
often as the highlight of their TSRI experience.
Victoria Mejia-Perales, a Lincoln High School student interning
in the Kelly lab in the Department of Chemistry, worked most
closely with third-year graduate student Songpon Deechongkit,
but also interacted with other grad students, postdocs, lab
managers and professors in a lab that combined chemists, biologists
and biochemists. Mejia-Perales learned how to synthesize peptides,
and was later offered an experiment working with amyloid fibrils,
which are formed by the disintegration of mis- or unfolded
"Dr. Kelly thought it would be interesting to see if food
high in protein could in any way form amyloid fibrils, so
he suggested I do an experiment using eggs and tofu," Mejia-Perales
wrote in her final report. In preliminary experiments, she
worked to make a positive control slide that showed egg with
In addition to exposing participants to the process of scientific
research, the eight-week internship provided many students
with their first taste of a 40-hour-per-week job. As intern
Amy Leff, who worked with Ruben Abagyan in the Department
of Molecular Biology on computational biology and bioinformatics,
puts it, the program "allows young people to become entrenched
in the institute as a full-time employee... I learned to use
the computer programs Unix and ICM to illustrate protein structures
and 'ligands' within the proteins, learned how to research
articles and also how to illustrate the actions of a certain
class of antibiotics via computers." Leff, who started her
senior year at Helix Charter School just three days after
the internship wrapped up, plans to major in a biological
science at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford,
or Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Offering high school students guidance with college and
career plans is another objective of the Summer Research Internship
Program. This occurs both through interactions in the lab
and through the mentorship component, which pairs each high
school intern with a TSRI graduate student or postdoc outside
their lab who meets with the student over lunch and corresponds
Interns sometimes refine their plans as a result of these
interactions, as in the case of Leigh Fritz, who worked in
the Wilson lab, most closely with graduate student Matt Kelker.
Leigh says that the summer internship has shown her that she
does in fact want to continue her education in the sciences,
but that discussions with Kelker and others persuaded her
to apply to larger universities with strong molecular biology
or biochemistry programs, rather than the smaller schools
she previously had in mind.
Also high on the summer interns' list of program benefits
was the variety of people they had the opportunity to work
with during their eight-week stay. When asked to evaluate
the program, most interns offer glowing descriptions of their
multi-cultural lab environments, from the variety of accents
they became accustomed to, to the sharing of international
foods, to the myriad idiosyncrasies of each lab's members.
Recalling the post doc who supervised her, for example, Han
lab intern Angel Nguyen noted that she would miss "the little
sound he makes when you tell him something interesting." Small
details and stories abound.
At the welcome reception for interns in June, the program's
organizers coached interns to think not about how the internship
program was living up to their expectations, but how they
were living up to the expectations of the program. Interns
were urged to take advantage of the opportunities that would
arise during their stay, and that by doing so they might be
surprised where they ended up at the conclusion of the program.
The interns must have taken the advice with them out of
the huddle, as they completed their eight weeks at TSRI with
a sense of wonder and accomplishment, and a better appreciation
for the nature of scientific research.