Science outreach program helps to prepare high-schoolers for rigors of college

Dan Quinn Raynelle Rino works with Lluvia Alcazar

Raynelle Rino works with Lluvia Alcazar on examining slides of willow tree leaf galls. Alcazar is a graduate of East Palo Alto’s Eastside College Preparatory School.

Dan Quinn Lluvia Alcazar inspects a leaf

Lluvia Alcazar, a college-bound student in the Office of Science Outreach’s summer internship program, examines a wasp gall on the leaf of a willow tree at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve for an ecological study.

Dan Quinn Raynelle Rino inspects willow trees

Raynelle Rino, right, inspects willow trees at Jasper Ridge with Lluvia Alcazar, a participant in a research internship program designed for students who are typically low-income, historically underrepresented in higher education and the first in their families to attend college. This summer marks the second year of the program.

Lluvia Alcazar examines what appear to be two large red beads embedded on a willow leaf, covered by a thin layer of webbing, in the middle of the Jasper Ridge hills. She is attempting to estimate the rate of parasitism in these gall structures, which seem to be quite numerous among the willow trees.

Alcazar is one of 17 high school students participating in an eight-week summer research program at Stanford to study science, medicine and engineering. The university's Office of Science Outreach provides a paid internship for the students.

The program, headed by Director Kaye Storm and Associate Director Paul Grossi, is designed for students who are typically low-income, historically underrepresented in higher education and the first in their families to attend college.

"As a scientist, I believe strongly that different perspectives are important factors in enriching scientific investigation," Grossi said. "Many talented and creative scientists lie hidden in these groups and … it is important to encourage these particular students at this formative point in their lives. This little nudge might make all the difference in the major and career they wind up selecting."

Students work a 9-to-5 schedule five days a week. They spend most of the week in the lab, then attend lectures and field trips on the fifth day. The program draws students primarily from Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto and Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City.

Chris Bischof, principal of Eastside College Preparatory and a Stanford alumnus, was immediately interested in the science outreach program after speaking with Pat Devaney, Stanford's former associate dean of research who started the program in 2007.

"From the moment I talked with her, I knew this would be an amazing opportunity for our students," Bischof said of his conversation with Devaney. "Because our students are the first in their families to go to college, they don't have a great sense of what college is like. Having the opportunity to work in a science lab at Stanford gives our students the confidence that they belong on a college campus and that they can compete there as well."

The program began last summer with only eight students but now has between 15 and 20. The program is by invitation only, and all applicants are nominated by their principal, guidance counselor or science teacher. Participants earn a $2,500 stipend, or $3,000 if they are returning for a second year. The program is made possible through funding from the Genentech Foundation for Biomedical Sciences, the Amgen Foundation, Stanford University's Office of the Dean of Research and the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at the National Science Foundation.

Though the Office of Science Outreach would like to expand the number of schools the program works with, Grossi said that the primary goal is to continue to monitor the progress of their students who have gone through the program.

Alcazar, a graduate of Eastside Prep and an entering freshman at Columbia University, is one of five students returning to the program for the second year. "My mom is part of a cleanup crew using 'green' materials and was asked to help clean up Jasper Ridge," Alcazar said. "I went with her to help out, and Cindy Wilber, the education coordinator for Jasper Ridge, happened to be there and asked if I would be interested in being a part of the science outreach program. I've been doing it ever since."

Alcazar is participating in a field ecological study with her mentor, Raynelle Rino, observing the interactions between willow tree galls—small structures on the leaf created by wasps who deposit their eggs in between the leaf tissue—and aphids—plant-eating insects or plant lice—and examining the damage done by the aphids to the wasps' eggs.

Alcazar is still not completely sure what she wants to do, but Rino says that the program provides the students with the confidence that there are many more options available to them. "Being involved in academia in this way, at this institution, really opens the eyes of the students and allows them to see firsthand that they can make it wherever they are placed," Rino said.

Fred Carr, a graduate of Eastside Prep and an entering freshman at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is participating in a psychology lab using an eye-tracking camera and infrared technology to compare infants' accuracy in estimating probability. An object is displayed 75 percent of the time on one side of the screen and 25 percent of the time on the opposite side of the screen, while a beam of light follows the movement of the infant's eye. The infants are then tested to see if they will look at one side of the screen more based on how often the object has been shown to them previously. Carr, who is responsible for conducting many of the studies and assisting his mentor, said he wants to become a pediatrician.

"I feel that understanding how infants and toddlers take in information will help adults to get them the appropriate mental and visual stimulation they need to be prepared for school and beyond," Carr said. "Understanding how a child is developing mentally will help me to develop closer bonds with patients."

Carr says that in addition to playing with the children, he has most enjoyed listening to his mentors share their enthusiasm for psychology. "Hearing from such a mixed group of great people who really love what they are studying has shown me what happens when you pursue a passion," Carr said.

Carr's mentor, Hanna Muenke, a psychology graduate student, was interested in working with the program primarily because of her own experience with high school research internships. Muenke grew up outside of Philadelphia and has previously worked with infant language development at Temple University and early diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania. Muenke said that her own experience motivated her to continue her involvement with future students.

"I think being involved in research is always a great opportunity to think critically, explore new areas of interest or learn new ways to think about what you thought you already knew," Muenke said. "Given Fred's interest in becoming a pediatrician, my goal is for him to learn as much information as possible about how children develop."

Many of the mentors say that contributing to the program gives them a sense of fulfillment. Rino, a biology graduate student, was already familiar with outreach programs and jumped at the opportunity to participate with the Office of Science Outreach.

"Science outreach is one of my passions as a scientist," Rino, who grew up in east San Jose, said. "Especially being a female scientist of color. I believe there is an urgent and important need to have successful science outreach into communities where science is not a mainstream interest. Being a part of this program allows me to actively participate in my passion."

Elena Madan, who works with visiting Whitman College undergraduate Ysbrand Nusse, is pleasantly surprised at how dedicated all of the mentors are.

"I really enjoy working with him," Madan said of Nusse. "He has been very supportive and encouraging at every step and has always had faith in me when I'm trying to learn something new. Whenever I'm unsure that I will be able to carry out a task on my own, he pushes me to try it out by myself. He is very patient and always explains things multiple times when I do not understand. I really appreciate that he takes the time to help me learn and try out my skills."

Scott Rooker, a graduate of the University of California-Santa Barbara, is working in the biological sciences lab with Bryan Alas, an entering senior at Eastside Prep, on post-injury retinal development and regeneration. Rooker said he believes the effort put into training the students is well worth the time and energy. "If you put the effort in to train the students—to teach them about the project and show them how to do various tasks—then they learn a bit more about science and at the same time help us get more work done," Rooker said. "Bryan is a very bright individual who has been more than capable of handling all of the tasks thrown at him so far. And above all, he seems even more interested and knowledgeable about science after being here."

Perhaps the success of the Office of Science Outreach program can best be summarized by Grossi's perspective: "I am incredibly impressed by the enthusiasm and support the faculty and mentors are providing the students in the program. … As for the students themselves, they are a delight to work with. They are inquisitive, hard working and very appreciative. … Working with them makes coming to work a real pleasure."

Gabrielle Hadley is a writing intern at the Stanford News Service.