July 21, 2006

The scientists of the future are here

The EXPORT Training Lab encourages Latino and African-American students to pursue careers in science.

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

Nicole Gomez always wanted to be a doctor.

All throughout her high school years, the 21-year-old University of California, San Diego (UCSD), student, had her goals set in a medical career.

But once she spent her sophomore year in the EXPORT Training Lab, a research laboratory where underre-presented students have the chance to do first-hand science research with a professional scientist, the possibilities within her career path expanded.

“Coming to UCSD I had grand plans of doing all the typical pre-med stuff,” said Gomez, who is a senior majoring in molecular biology. “Then I discovered the research aspect of medicine. I still want to be a medical doctor, but I have a great respect for research and I want to continue doing research throughout my medical career.”

That’s exactly the purpose of the EXPORT Training Lab, according to Dr. Percy Russell, a biochemistry professor at UCSD who oversees students in the lab.

“We want to expose students, especially Latinos and African-Americans, to scientific research, and hopefully, if they feel this is something they want to do, they can pursue a career as a scientist,” said Russell, who is African-American.

The number of scientists from minority groups is really low when compared to Whites, with the only exception of Asian-Americans, a group that’s starting to produce great researchers, Russell added.

In addition, the majority of Latinos and African-Americans attend high schools where the lab facilities lack adequate equipment for their chemistry and physics courses. To make matters worst, many of these students never enrolled in advanced science courses in high school, Russell noted.

“When they get to college, these students hardly know what it is to be in a lab doing research,” he said.

The lab targets local high school students, as well as UCSD and San Diego State University freshmen and sophomores. Russell has trained more than 100 students and staff in his laboratory.

At the beginning of the training, students choose a research project they want to develop during the internship. Working under the supervision of a professor and graduate student, they learn all the basics of scientific research: From the name of the lab equipment to generating a report of their findings.

“The experience was amazing,” said Gomez, who spent last Summer doing research in Spain. “Because I had a ten week internship I had good lab techniques coming in and was able to start on my own project. It was exciting, but at the same time challenging. I always had help if I needed it, but it was nice that my supervisors let me do the research—they trusted me to get my work done, and to me it was great.  I really felt like I was being trained how to think and act like a scientist, not just a student given some lab work to do for someone else.”

One of those helpful people is Anita Williams, the laboratory training manager. She works hand in hand with Dr. Russell and does a large part of the training.

Although Williams exposes the students as much as possible to the techniques of scientific research, she acknowledges that the interest in a career in science must come from students themselves.

“I wouldn’t try to convince them to become scientists,” she said. “Even if they later decide this is not for them, the experience will serve them in any field they choose to go into.”

Russell uses his own life story as an example to encourage his students to continue doing scientific research once their internship at the EXPORT Training Lab ends.

“I grew up in Harlem and as African-American, all the odds were against me,” he said. “But my family instilled in me the desire to achieve my goals in science and I made it.”

Gomez said she was definitely inspired to continue doing research.

“I would highly recommend students to get involved in the program,” she said. “Mostly because they will have the opportunity to get trained in basic lab techniques, which will be useful for classes. If they continue doing research, they will be taught how to really be a scientist. I think it will tell them whether or not this is the career for them. It’s a fantastic program with fantastic people who are so willing to help out undergraduate students.”

If you’re a high school or college student with an interest in science and would like to learn more about the EXPORT Training Lab, call Jose Cruz (619) 243-1360, or visit http://meded.ucsd.edu/sdexport/

Pablo Jaime Sainz is an intern with the UCSD San Diego EXPORT Center and a graduate of San Diego State University. The San Diego EXPORT Center is a partnership of organizations focusing on community minority health and health disparities research.

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