Beyond Summer School:
Local High School Students, Undergrads, and Teachers Experience Life in the Lab

By Jennifer O'Sullivan and Mary Lien

"Working in a lab is very different than learning in class," said Roberto Carbuccia, a Mt. Miguel High School student who was a summer intern in the organic chemistry laboratory of Professor Ehud Keinan at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI). "And, it's a good way to discover whether or not you enjoy [science] outside your textbooks."

Carbuccia was among 22 San Diego high school students, four undergraduates, and one high school science teacher who participated in the 2003 TSRI Summer Research Internship Program.

Most interns began the summer by familiarizing themselves with lab protocols, equipment, and a new vocabulary. As the summer progressed, interns were assigned an individual research project or assisted with multiple projects, working either directly with the lab's principal investigator, or with a graduate student, postdoc, or research technician. In addition to work in the lab, interns participated in program activities, such as a trip to the Natural History Museum, and career-related seminars, such as a presentation comparing Ph.D. programs to medical school.

As a finale to the eight-week program, the interns recently made formal presentations of their results and experiences to an audience of their peers, fellow lab members, mentors, and family and friends.

"I learned about the insight of science and what lies beyond the constant jumble of numbers, expensive lab equipment, and explosive chemicals," reported intern Brittany Williams, a recent graduate of Granite Hills High School who studied protein crystallography in the laboratory of Associate Professor Dave Stout. "I now sense that science will become more than just a job to me. [It will become] an aspect of my life—part of who I am and the way I think." Williams is now headed to Pepperdine University, where she has already set up a meeting with a biology professor to discuss working as an undergraduate assistant in the lab.

Maya Webb, a former Lincoln High School student who will complete her senior year at Scripps Ranch High School in 2004, worked in the Johnson lab with Assistant Professor Vijay Reddy. She remarked that the internship opened her eyes to an entirely different world of science. "During my eight weeks, I learned many techniques, such as sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE), the maintenance of an insect cell culture, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and how to run agarose gels," she said, adding that "working with Dr. Reddy only made it more spectacular." Reddy, a first-time mentor in the program, was also pleased. "If one spends time with the interns, they come out with flying colors," he observed.

Samantha Soriano, a recent graduate of Rancho Bernardo High School who was driving to UC Berkeley with her family after the final presentation, was also enthusiastic about her mentors. "I am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to intern in Dr. [Dong-er] Zhang's laboratory," she said. "All the postdocs were patient answering my questions and explaining the concepts behind the lab techniques they performed. Every time I made a mistake, they encouraged me to repeat the procedure and reminded me that making mistakes and asking questions is the only way to learn. Now, when I am in a class of 300 people at Berkeley, I won't be afraid to ask, 'Why is this important?' 'How does this fit with other concepts,' and 'Where will this lead?'"

UCSD undergraduate Robert Wells, who worked in Associate Professor Dave Goodin's lab, reported that the summer internship at TSRI helped confirm his career plans. "I have always intended to get my Ph.D. in biology and go into the field of biological research. However, my experience has put a face to what both graduate school and [a career in] research would be like."

Some of Wells' experiments this summer yielded inconclusive results—a common experience for those working at the bench. "I was whimsically told that this is why they call it 're'search," he joked. "I learned that if things don't go right you do them again, and if they still don't go right, then this is just how science is. However, most importantly I learned that you should never give up."

Judging from the results and personal reflections they shared, this year's participants in the TSRI Summer Research Internship Program are far from giving up. Whether they pursue research, medicine, or something entirely different, these young scientists are just getting started.

This summer's internship program was made possible by the Blasker-Rose-Miah Fund of The San Diego Foundation, the San Diego Workforce Partnership in conjunction with the Neighborhood House Association, the Hearst Foundation, Oliver and Norma James, and the John and Susan Diekman Fellowship.

Participants in the 2003 Summer Research Internship Program at TSRI are all smiles after completing their final presentations.




Chula Vista High School graduate Darlene Nolasco explains some of the data she analyzed as an intern in the Wong lab in the Department of Chemistry. Photo by Kevin Fung.