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A Summer with Science

December 11, 2009
by Nate Seltenrich
Edgar Ulu in a laboratory

The first thing Edgar Ulu noticed was the smell. A junior at Thurgood Marshall High School in San Francisco, the 16-year-old had never been in a real laboratory before. Now he was donning safety goggles and a white lab coat five days a week. One of six student interns in this year’s Introductory College Level Experience in Microbiology (ICLEM) program, Ulu spent the summer studying biofuels alongside Ph.D.s and postdocs at the state-of-the-art Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) laboratory in Emeryville.

Ulu and his newfound colleagues—Karla Loaiza, a senior at Oakland Unity; Ruty Miyazaki-Smith, a junior in Berkeley Independent Study; Esteban Bolden, a senior at Berkeley High; Dzenifa Velic, a senior at Oakland Tech; and Claudia Portillo, a junior at Salesian in Richmond—aren’t the sort of high school students who would typically enroll in a summer science internship at one of the nation’s leading biofuel laboratories. They all come from families with little or no college education, and their grades aren’t necessarily top of the class. But these six teens have more than that in common: They’re also bright and driven to succeed.

The paid internship, meant to compete with menial summer jobs, is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s JBEI. “The important thing is showing these kids that they can work in a cutting-edge, very high-level environment and be OK,” said program cofounder Clem Fortman. Along with fellow JBEI researcher James Carothers and Berkeley synthetic-biology professor and LBNL acting deputy laboratory director Jay Keasling, the postdoc researcher designed the program last year to prepare underserved high school students for university study.

“I just want to see these kids going to college,” said Fortman. “Beyond that, I want to see them be successful human beings.” He can relate: A self-proclaimed “GED guy,” Fortman left high school at the age of 17 to serve in the Army, spent years working blue-collar jobs, and finally matriculated at the University of Minnesota at the age of 28. He received his Ph.D. in 2006 and, as a part of Keasling’s lab, is today on the cutting edge of bioenergy research.

In the end, Fortman’s unconventional career arc motivated him to donate his time to helping youth avoid the same mistakes. School can be hard, he said, but not as hard as the alternative.

“It gave me more confidence and made me realize how able I am to have a job like this,” said Bolden, 17, during a break in lab work. Many of his fellow students expressed a similar enthusiasm and appreciation for the experience.

“I just wanted to do something different, because most of my relatives have blue-collar jobs,” said Velic, 17. “I wanted to do something better and have a better future.” She added that she hopes to someday work as a crime scene investigator and apply some of the lab skills she acquired here to DNA analysis.

In addition to the ongoing bioenergy science project, the college prep–oriented curriculum featured weekly guest speakers, six field trips, and college application preparation. This summer’s ICLEM team also included two East Bay high school teachers and a research assistant from Oakland’s Laney College, who would take the techniques they learned back to their classrooms.

The students gave their final presentations in a JBEI conference room on August 12, in front of approximately 100 audience members—most of them family, some perhaps also passing through a real laboratory for the first time. Taking turns at a lectern and gesturing to a projected slideshow, the six interns shared the work they had completed over the past eight weeks. Speaking articulately about complex scientific concepts that might seem foreign to their high school classmates—or their former selves just three months before—they explained how they were able to identify enzymes that break down cellulose for use in biofuels. The inspiring presentation demonstrated that the ICLEM experience, if not scientifically groundbreaking, has the potential to be immensely influential in their lives.

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