Aptos High School student Erika Escalona liked high school chemistry, but she wasn't sure how far she wanted to pursue the subject until last summer, when she did a research project in the lab of chemistry professor Shaowei Chen at UC Santa Cruz.
"Now I totally know I want to do chemistry," said Escalona, one of 142 high school students (a record number) who did research projects at UC Santa Cruz last summer through the Science Internship Program (SIP). Chemistry graduate student René Mercado was Escalona's mentor, and they still keep in touch.
"I had never been to a research lab before," Escalona said. "The Chen lab was pretty amazing. It was a great environment. I gained skills and learned to have confidence in myself."
Escalona plans to major in chemistry at Princeton University, where she will start as a freshman in the fall. When she spoke about her experience in the program at an SIP reunion in December, it was a proud moment for her parents, both Mexican immigrants who had to quit school and start working before they got beyond elementary school.
"Every one of these stories means a lot to me, because it shows the impact the program can have on students' lives and the importance of need-based scholarships for students who could not otherwise afford the program," said Puragra (Raja) GuhaThakurta, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz who started SIP in 2009.
GuhaThakurta organized the reunion for SIP alumni and their families to celebrate the program's success and to launch a fundraising effort to provide continued support. Google has been a generous supporter of the program and hosted the reunion at the Google campus in Mountain View. A dozen families of SIP alumni have already committed $120,000 in matching funds to help establish an SIP Annual Fund.
Among other things, the fund will help SIP develop additional enrichment activities, provide more training for mentors, recruit qualified students from low-income communities, provide need-based scholarships, and recruit a full-time program director.
GuhaThakurta said SIP started informally, when he helped a few high school students find computation-based research projects to work on over the summer. He soon discovered that a great many students are interested in such opportunities. The interns work closely with graduate student mentors in faculty research labs, and the program has grown rapidly as GuhaThakurta has gotten more faculty involved.
"I'm trying to encourage other universities to do this, because there's a huge demand. We've found that not only are the students having good experiences, there are also significant benefits for the graduate students who mentor them," GuhaThakurta said.
SIP now involves 15 different departments at UC Santa Cruz, offering students opportunities for summer research projects in areas such as astrophysics, biomolecular engineering, chemistry, linguistics, and environmental science. To date, more than 400 students from 90 different high schools have participated in the 10-week program, which involves a deep dive into a real science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) research project, and also includes workshops, social activities, and field trips.
One hallmark of the program from the start has been the remarkable success rate of interns who submit their research projects to national and international science competitions, such as the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. Last year, SIP interns made up a quarter of the California semifinalists in the Siemens competition. In addition, GuhaThakurta said many of the students who do astrophysics research projects present their findings in poster sessions at American Astronomical Society meetings.
Increasing the diversity of SIP students and providing scholarships for those with financial needs have been priorities for GuhaThakurta as the program has grown. He noted the program has always had good gender diversity, with about 60 percent girls all along.
"This alone is a big achievement. We've found that many of them go on to pursue computer science degrees in college, and women are strongly underrepresented in that field," GuhaThakurta said.
He has been reaching out to regional public schools and partnering with outreach programs such as UCSC's Educational Partnership Center and Minds Matter of San Francisco to recruit more students from underserved groups. "We've had four students from Minds Matter, a great program in San Francisco that focuses on high-achieving low-income students in the public schools. They're one of seven diversity partners we're working with to expand our outreach," GuhaThakurta said.
He is also working to establish a "bridge program" for students who may need additional support to navigate some of the challenges of the internship program or may feel intimidated by them. "The idea is to give them an opportunity to build their skills and work on projects in a controlled environment where we can give them as much guidance as they need," GuhaThakurta said. "We will focus on students who are disadvantaged due to socioeconomic status, would be the first in their family to go to college, or are from groups underrepresented in the STEM fields."
Escalona said she didn't apply for SIP in her sophomore year because she didn't think she was ready, but with hindsight she says she probably would have done fine. "Any high school student should think about it," she said. "No matter what skill level you think you are, you can do it. What matters is your motivation and the effort you put into it."