TSRI’s Spring Programs Bridge Gap Between Modern Lab and High-School Classroom

By Jennifer O’Sullivan

For students and teachers alike the advent of spring is associated with, well, a break. Spring Break, that capricious Puck, calls on them to abandon all things serious and studious, to embrace longer days and warmer temperatures before bearing down for the last leg of the semester. The six or so weeks following Spring Break are normally focused on the completion of projects and papers, units, and, ultimately, the school year.

But for 12 teachers and 21 students from 16 San Diego secondary schools, this spring promises fresh challenges and new beginnings.

For the past 12 years, The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) has used its intellectual and material resources to promote and improve science literacy, enhance science teachers’ professional development, and inspire students to pursue careers in the life sciences. In recognition of the shift towards a multiracial, multiethnic society— both locally and nationally—TSRI encourages students and teachers from gender and ethnic groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences to attend its programs. Support is provided by the San Diego Workforce Partnership, the Joseph Drown Foundation, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, the French Fund (administered by Wells Fargo Bank), and the Carl E. Wynn Foundation.

Twenty-One Teenagers Have Chemistry

The high school students attending TSRI’s Spring Enrichment tutorials don’t merely arrive on campus every Wednesday at 3 PM. Instead, it’s as if they spring, en masse, with packed schedules, heavy backpacks, and the occasional instrument case in tow, from the shuttle buses that transport them from their respective schools each week. Selected from a large pool of applicants by Robin Goldsmith, vice president of communications and director of science education programs, and representatives from the Neighborhood House Association (which administers funds from the San Diego Workforce Partnership), these high school juniors and seniors are participating in an eight-week course on aspects of modern molecular biology and chemistry.

Taught by TSRI doctoral students, tutorials cover a variety of topics, with creative titles such as “Genetics and Genomics: As Simple as A-T-G-C” and "Dance of the Macromolecules." Graduate students also organize demonstrations and hands-on activities for the high school participants.

For the grad students, the program provides teaching experience they wouldn’t get otherwise. The chance to develop skills explaining science to public groups with varying experience and knowledge is an added benefit. Primarily, though, they want to get the students excited about science.

"We try to make biomedical research accessible to them," says graduate student Megan Trevathan, who coordinates the tutorials, "to give them a window into a world they might not have access to otherwise."

As coordinator of TSRI’s educational outreach programs, I’ve gotten to know the high school students during the past three weeks. Their exuberance, ambition, and interest in the sciences impress me. And their ability to juggle school and myriad extracurricular activities with the quintessential teenage "no big deal" attitude.

Jessica Gomez, for example, is a junior at Chula Vista High School and a member of the concert/marching band, which meets daily during sixth and seventh period. "Since I have the same teacher both periods," she explains, "I worked out an agreement where she lets me miss seventh period and leave at 2:15 PM on Wednesdays to meet the shuttle to Scripps." What’s more, Jessica takes a class through Southwestern College on Wednesday nights and so arranged for her mother to swing by TSRI after work and to take her straight there. Like most ambitious teenagers with the energy to match, leaving something out just doesn’t enter in.

Once the school year ends, each of the 21 high schoolers will have a chance to channel his or her energy into more specific areas of research, working as a student intern in a TSRI lab for the summer.

Saviz Sepah, the top-ranked student of his junior class at Scripps Ranch High School, tells me he hopes to find a challenging internship position. "Nothing too routine," he says.

I ask the students as a group what area they hope to be working in during the summer.

"Biotechnology!!!" the chorus booms.

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High-school students Tracie Nguyen, Erica Delgado, and Saviz Sepah (left to right) prepare a mock enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA).