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High School Interns Explore Careers in Science with UCSF Summer Program

Gabby Flores didn't speak much English before arriving to the U.S from El Salvador just before starting high school, but science was one way of bridging that language gap.

Gabby Flores didn't speak much English before arriving to the U.S from El Salvador just before starting high school, but science was one way of bridging that language gap.

Within a few years, the 17-year-old has become able to effectively translate difficult science concepts into Spanish to help more recent immigrants understand the science being taught in her classes at San Francisco's International High School. She lights up when talking about her science teachers and the hands-on learning experiences she's had with them.

Before this summer, Gabby had never met a scientist. Now she's surrounded by scientists and transformed into one herself as she conducts cutting-edge biomedical research in the lab of the University of California, San Francisco's (UCSF) Eric Huang, MD, PhD, a professor in the Department of Pathology.

Flores is one of 20 students from the city's public high schools who are participating in the UCSF Science & Health Education Partnership’s High School Intern Program (HIP), which gives a unique opportunity for students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to immerse themselves in a science research environment and support them through the college application process.

Challenges of First-Generation-to-College Students

The HIP cohort is diverse, like the population of San Francisco’s schools.

Unlike other research internship programs around the country, HIP doesn’t just recruit students who already are well on track to enter top-tier colleges and universities. Instead, the program works closely with high school science teachers to identify talented students who need extra support to reach their full potential.

Rebecca Smith photo
Gabby Flores, left, and fellow intern Jaime Velis engage in an activity to visualize cellular processes during the June 5 HIP Orientation, where students learn basic lab skills and concepts. Photo credit: Rebecca Smith  

Most of the program’s students are from low-income backgrounds; nearly all come from families without a history of going to college; and many, like Gabby, are recent immigrants.

Students are paired with scientist mentors who guide the interns as they learn the experimental techniques and scientific background knowledge needed to complete a research project.

The scientist mentors, largely graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, are integral to the success of HIP. Most HIP students have had very limited exposure to careers in science, and their aspirations are limited by a lack of knowledge.

Putting Students on Path to College

In addition to their time in labs, HIP students receive intensive support focused on the college application and financial aid process.

Students enter the program with little knowledge about college, how to apply and how to be competitive for college admission.

The odds of matriculating to college and graduating in less than six years are stacked against students like those in HIP. Nationwide, only 53 percent of first-generation students enter college in the year after graduating from high school, and less than 11 percent persist to a earn a bachelor’s degree.

HIP reverses these odds and puts these talented students solidly on the path to college and careers in science. Longitudinal studies have shown that 92 percent of HIP alumni matriculate to college, and 76 percent of alumni complete bachelor’s degrees in the sciences.

An astounding 87 percent of HIP alumni even continue their educations in graduate or professional school, compared to less than 37 percent of all undergraduates.

Over the course of the summer, a transformation occurs in HIP students – they gain confidence in themselves, and begin to see a place for themselves in college and in science.

Interns leave UCSF with a nascent network of peers and practicing scientists invested in their success. The impact of the program is perhaps best summed up by the words of one HIP student: “It will inspire you for the rest of your life.”