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Training the Next Generation of San Diego Biologists

February 13, 2015

By Kim McDonald

Emily Petty giving a lesson to students in the lab

Biological Sciences postdoctoral fellow Emily Petty gave the students a lesson on chromatin structure and function

Erika Johnson

More than 40 students studying biotechnology at Castle Park High School's Science Innovation Academy in Chula Vista came to campus to experience how biologists do research—as well as to learn what it takes to actually become a scientist.

Their recent visit, arranged by emeritus professor of biology Maarten Chrispeels and Castle Park biology and biotechnology teachers Megan Grupe and Darci Kimball, was sponsored by Biological Sciences Dean Bill McGinnis and filmed by a television crew for CBS Channel 8, which will soon broadcast the segment as part of its Innovate 8 series on local STEM education programs.

"For most of our students, this was their first time setting foot on a university campus, as well as, being able to interact with graduate and undergraduate students and university professors," said Grupe, who received her master's degree in education from UC San Diego in 2012 after graduating from the University of Oregon with degrees in marine biology and environmental sciences. "If we truly want to support our students in attaining a college degree, let alone in the sciences, we have to expose them to this reality or they have nothing to go on. Most of our students will be first-generation college goers, so they don't always have close family that truly understands what it means to get to and go to college."

Emily Petty teaching students how to use a pipette in the lab

Biological Sciences postdoctoral fellow Emily Petty gave the students a lesson on chromatin structure and function.

Erika Johnson

The mostly 10th grade students from the Science Innovation Academy who visited are required to take four years of science courses at Castle Park, participate in internships and do community service projects under the direction of Kimball, who heads the academy program. During their day on the UC San Diego campus, they toured the laboratories of biology professor Lorraine Pillus and pharmaceutical sciences professor JoAnn Trejo. In the Pillus lab, postdoctoral fellow Emily Petty gave the students a lesson on chromatin structure and function, and in the Trejo lab, postdoctoral fellow Terri Stoner discussed vascular endothelial cells and the blood brain barrier.

"The lab visits were very meaningful, because they gave our students a real world context for what is possible with a science degree, if they end up pursuing the sciences in college, which we hope," said Grupe. "Being able to get a glimpse of what a scientist does on a day-to-day basis, as well as the route from undergraduate to a graduate student they might have to take gives them a better idea of the reality of actually pursuing this. Otherwise all they have to go by is what we tell them and what they see on television or in the movies, which isn't always a fair or complete picture for our students."

Chrispeels told the students that as San Diegans, they should regard UC San Diego as their university. "Hopefully, some of them will apply to UC San Diego, be accepted and become star students here," he said. "Many of them are already star students at their high school."