Lighting a Spark for Science


Start early. Practice, practice, practice. It’s a routine that works for developing skills from mastering a language to excelling at athletics. When it comes to flexing our science muscles, the same regimen applies.

The earlier a student is introduced to science and research, the more equipped he or she is to pursue a scientific career path. However, not all students receive equal exposure or encouragement to pursue the sciences, a lapse in the system that impairs America’s economic strength in the long run.

A 2010 report by the National Academies entitled Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America's Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads found that while African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics comprise 28.5 percent of the U.S. population, they represent only 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in the science and engineering workforce.

To help bridge the gap, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego engages students at the high school and undergraduate levels in hands-on research experiences in ocean, earth, and climate science. These rigorous summer programs introduce high-achieving students from diverse backgrounds to exciting research at Scripps. For many it is their first exposure to the kind of science they may want to explore through their college major or in a Ph.D program one day.

One such program, the Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) is a competitively awarded 10-week summer program, designed to engage students in a wide range of exciting earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences research at Scripps by providing hands-on laboratory and field experience. In particular, the SURF program, supported by the National Science Foundation, seeks to increase the diversity of students successfully prepared to pursue earth and ocean science career pathways and to recruit individuals from institutions with limited undergraduate research opportunities.

This summer, SURF student Jesse Andrews of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., had the rare opportunity to spend 10 days of his summer fellowship at sea aboard Scripps research vessel Melville during the San Diego Coastal Expedition.  He and two other SURF students lived and worked alongside Scripps graduate student mentors who taught them real-world lessons from safety at sea to deploying advanced ocean instruments and analyzing freshly collected samples in the lab.

“As I reflect I must do so with appreciation and gratefulness for such an opportunity,” said Andrews of his first research experience at sea. “I am quite proud of myself and this achievement will be the highlight of my life for years to come.”

A similar summer program, Focus on the Future, introduces underrepresented high school students and teachers from Compton and San Diego to Scripps science during a three-week intensive residential learning experience. Now in its third year, the program has introduced more than 50 minority students to the academic research environment, an important cultivation tool in recruiting the next generation of leaders in science and technology.

Outside of these programs, dozens more undergraduate interns from across the nation participate in Scripps labs each summer for hands-on research experience, especially within the Marine Physical Laboratory and as part of the California Current Ecosystem Long Term Ecological Research program.

"At Scripps Oceanography we embrace the importance of diversity,” said Scripps Director Tony Haymet. “The variety of personal experiences, values, and worldviews that arise from differences of culture and circumstance strengthens the institution and our mission.

Through intense immersion in lab activities and college prep workshops, many summer students gain a new passion and spark for science that ignites their career ambitions. UC San Diego undergraduate student Elvira Hernandez Lopez, a SURF student who joined Jesse Andrews aboard R/V Melville, hinted at her hopes to become a future Scripps graduate student.

“This experience made me realize that I made the right career choice. You know that saying ‘if you love what you do, you’ll never have to work a day in your life?’ That is exactly how I feel about this,” she wrote in a blog about her time at sea. “Who knows, one day I might get a chance to come back to the Melville, and hopefully not as an undergrad…but I’ll leave it there, I don’t want to jinx it!”

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