Inspiring young students to branch into STEM

A recent visit by local high school students was part of an ongoing outreach effort by UC Santa Cruz’s STEM Diversity Programs, which encourages students from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in the sciences

The visiting Watsonville High School students enjoyed putting on their lab coats and goggles and getting a first-hand glimpse of UC Santa Cruz laboratories. (Photos by Dan White.)

Veronica Urabe, a Ph.D. student in UC Santa Cruz’s Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology, is studying a complex molecular machine known as the spliceosome, which edits the information translated from the genome. Like the students visiting the lab this spring, she hails from Watsonville. 

One warm spring morning, Watsonville High School students slipped on lab coats, donned safety goggles, and entered a warren of tight corridors and darkly lit laboratories hidden away in UC Santa Cruz’s Science Hill.

A few of them giggled nervously as they looked at each other, all dressed up like scientists. Many took group selfies in their science garb. They could barely contain their excitement as they stomped down an echoing stairwell and descended into the labs.

“Cool huh?” said one student as he peered through a microscope, examining some retinal cells from human eyes. “How did you get these things?” he marveled. “Did you scrape them off someone’s eyeball?” (The answer from a lab assistant was, “Yes, we did.”)

Other students chuckled at some of the quirky, homey touches that warmed up the austere atmosphere of some laboratories, including a yellow Post-It note saying “WHERE’S THE COFFEE?,” and a baby Jesus statuette hiding inside a piece of equipment that measures concentrations of cells.  Those warm, humanizing touches made the labs seem more welcoming and familiar. 

The visit was part of an ongoing outreach effort by UC Santa Cruz’s STEM Diversity Programs, led by director Yuliana Ortega.  Current STEM Diversity students, science faculty, and staff members teamed up to visit Watsonville high school classrooms and inspire students from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in the sciences. 

The STEM Diversity Office funded the visit with the help of the local offices of SACNAS, an organization dedicated to fostering the success of Chicano/Hispanic and Native American scientists, encouraging and helping them to attain advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM careers.

Doug Kellogg, a professor of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology, summed up the theme of the visit: "We wanted to let students know that science is exciting and rewarding, and that if you dream of becoming a scientist, you can and should follow your dream."

Meeting mentors

That message hit home, especially when the students had a chance to meet researchers who grew up alongside them in Watsonville, including Veronica Urabe, a Ph.D. student in UC Santa Cruz’s Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology who is studying a complex molecular machine known as the spliceosome, which edits the information translated from the genome.

Urabe, 29, did not have role models in the sciences early on, but she had the talent and passion—and she soon found mentors who supported her and led her to enroll at UC Santa Cruz. Her father, a grocery clerk, and her mother, a social worker, recognized right away that she had a passion for science.  Even as a child, she would be cutting up a chicken and startling her parents by saying, “Oh, look - this is a capillary!”

Looking back, Urabe can see that she was a trailblazer. "I didn’t really know this was a career path, but I have made it my own, and gone after what I want. There has always been this innate kind of driver, pulling me toward this.”

Urabe found her calling after graduating from Watsonville High School in 2005. While attending Cabrillo College, she was accepted into the UC Santa Cruz ACCESS Summer Research Institute, an intensive eight-week introduction to research methods and tools in the biomedical sciences.  Selected participants work with UC Santa Cruz faculty mentors on a research project in their field of interest.  At Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz, Urabe found the mentors who encouraged her love and science and led her to pursue a Ph.D. degree.

Fired up about the sciences

The students looked wide-eyed at certain points of the tour, but they had an easy rapport with their tour guides. This was not surprising; they had met some of those researchers and faculty members before.

Science faculty, as well as undergraduate and graduate students from the STEM program, visited Watsonville High School in December to fire them up about the sciences.  Now this self-selecting group of science-minded high school students was touring UC Santa Cruz labs and taking in panel discussions and presentations from Admissions and Financial Aid.

Mauricio Medrano, 17, of Watsonville High School, was very impressed by what he saw during the tour and panel talks. “Probably the most striking thing is the fact that you have so many different areas to study in each field,” he said. “I think that is amazing.”

Both of his parents are in agriculture. “They’re farmers; I didn’t really get into any STEM fields until I got to high school,” said Medrano, who is now taking AP biology.

One of the highlights of the visit was a galvanizing talk by Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “We need all of your brilliance” in the sciences, he said.

Ramirez-Ruiz described himself to the students, intriguingly, as "a sort of stellar mortician. I study the death of stars. I can tell you where the oxygen we breathe comes from, and the iron in your blood. You know most of these elements were formed in stars … Chemically, we are much closer to each other than we are genetically. Every single one of our atoms is basically encoded with the history of the universe."

The students broke out in knowing smiles when they learned that Ramirez-Ruiz hails from Mexico, and that he went to Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico with 100,000 other students—a thousand of them in his physics major alone. “I am extremely interested in promoting science within the Latino community,” he said.

Why science?

Why should they pursue such careers? For one thing, he said, science is the key to learning where we come from and, literally, “what we are made of.” Another goal is protecting the planet. But, from a practical standpoint, those who pursue science careers can earn five times more than those who don’t, he also noted. “We need a lot of talented people to get into the sciences,” he said. “Think of UC Santa Cruz as your home university.”

He emphasized that he and other science faculty would make themselves accessible to interested students. “Please don’t hesitate to contact us directly.” He also mentioned summer programs geared for outstanding students interested in the sciences. “I am very excited to see all of you here visiting,” he said. “This is just the beginning of your journey.”

The message to the intrigued young students was clear: there is more than just one pathway to careers in the sciences. Speaker after speaker illustrated that point, including Andrea Antoni, who went from being a single mom supporting herself as a sandwich maker at Togo’s to becoming a physics researcher at UC Santa Cruz.

Antoni, an undergraduate majoring in physics, was recently named a 2017 Goldwater Scholar by the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. The Goldwater Scholarschip is a prestigious national competition for undergraduates studying math, science, and engineering. 

“It is totally amazing that every day I get to come here,” Antoni said. “Instead of arguing with customers about a five-dollar burrito, I get to challenge this huge creative part of myself that was starving before—and people are paying me.

 “I come from a poor neighborhood in Ohio,” she continued. “I had a daughter at 18. And here I am, applying to the top 10 astronomy programs in the fall.”