Strangers on a Train Create an Educational Opportunity


To sixth- and seventh-graders everywhere, slimy things whipped up in lab beakers will forever be cool.

But about 200 such middle school students got a little added wonder last month when they came to visit the lab of marine microbiologist and chemist William Gerwick on the campus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. The goo they were stretching into spaghetti-length strands was pure DNA material cultivated by the Scripps graduate students who served as their guides.

The occasion was a visit orchestrated by the Palomar College GEAR-UP program. Short for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, GEAR-UP is a federal grant project that gives middle school students exposure to experiences that could influence their career choices years later.

“They’ve never really experienced something like this before,” said Lindsay Barth, a GEAR-UP outreach coordinator at Palomar and a leader of the April 11 field trip. “Seeing the labs, all the different science experiments opens up their minds to how much a university can offer them.”

For Gerwick, who is a professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical sciences at the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine (CMBB) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UCSD Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the benefit was not just for the youngsters. The 57-year-old said his viewpoint has changed as he has aged and the desire to make a difference occupies a larger part of his thoughts these days. He was given the opportunity during a chance train ride to Santa Barbara two years ago. The stranger sitting next to him with whom he struck up a conversation was Cameron Russell, a GEAR-UP tutor at Palomar. The two described what they did for a living and exchanged contact information with no particular end in mind.

Almost two years later, Russell remembered Gerwick when Barth polled her team for field trip ideas.

The tour-takers are from San Marcos, Del Dios, Hidden Valley, and Mission middle schools from the San Marcos and Escondido school districts. The Palomar GEAR-UP program will work with them through high school offering similar opportunities to consider various career choices. The Scripps visit included an introduction by Gerwick to the kinds of research that happens at his lab. Afterward, small groups of the students visited individual labs to learn about how potentially valuable compounds are extracted from marine algae, how genomics could improve medical care, and how molecules are isolated.

“What was most fun was seeing my postdocs and grad students get inspired by the fact that they can have this inspirational effect,” said Gerwick.  “To see them in this role was really satisfying to me.”

Calvin One Deer, director of grant funded student programs at Palomar College, said the visit was among several trips to places like San Diego State University, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and a science fair at Petco Park that GEAR-UP enabled middle school students to make this year.

Barth said she would welcome a chance for return visits to Scripps.

“We have these students from 6th grade until their first year of college so we’re hoping to come back and have them learn something new,” she said.

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