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LISTEN: The next generation of Earth scientists

<p>Stanford School Of Earth Sciences</p>
October 2, 2014
Students looking over a map
<p>High school interns examine the geologic map of the San Francisco Bay Area at San Gregorio State Beach as part of the School of Earth Sciences internship program. Field coordinator Sara Cina leads one of the group field trips.</p>

BY ALESSANDRA SANTIAGO
Earth Systems BS/MS Candidate

I look at the voice recorder, and it tells me we have been talking for nearly thirty minutes. I catch myself glancing down at my notebook to find the next question. “What have you gained from your internship this summer?”

Fernanda Gonzalez, a recent graduate of San Francisco International High School, looks across the table at me thoughtfully. She allows her fellow lab-mate, another recently graduated student from Homestead High School, to respond to my question first. While her friend is talking, she has a look on her face that tells me she is far away from this small room. Her lab-mate describes the joy of working in a lab, making new friends, and finding a great mentor. She looks over at Fernanda, cuing her to speak. I sit with my notebook and pen in hand, expecting a similar answer when Fernanda responds.

“I wanted a lab experience this summer. I didn’t want to sit around and wait for college to start. I wanted to actually do something and contribute. The independence we are given here to work with the material, the science, the research is all completely new to me. I have gotten to study the science of oceans I have never visited and study effects of climate change that I haven’t seen before. More than anything, this internship has only further inclined me to be a biochemist, and I know that’s what I want to do now.”

Fernanda sits back quietly, and I get the sense that she has discovered some profound truth about herself in her time at Stanford. Although the certainty in her plan is not common among people her age, Fernanda’s sense of scientific curiosity has been activated during her time in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences High School Internship. Her internship story is one among many, but there is a shared interest in engaging science in new, unexplored ways among her and the 30 to 40 high school students who participate in the internship program every year. 

Jennifer Saltzman has been the program’s director for nearly a decade, and her smile lights up whenever she discusses the strengths of the program.  “High school students from all over the San Francisco Bay Area participate in this eight-week long internship,” Saltzman told me.  All of the students work on projects under the mentorship of graduate student advisors, and they spend their days working in the lab, running samples, looking under the microscope, and contributing to the daily duties of the lab group.

Saltzman also makes sure that the interns have time to explore the breadth of Earth science and the natural world through field trips and other activities. This year, the interns traveled to Pinnacles National Park to camp and study geological formations in the valley, and they visited the Bean Hollow State Beach to study the tide pools. The students also heard weekly cross-disciplinary lectures from faculty across the school to further enrich their interactions with the scientific disciplines that they pursue.

The internships provide a glimpse into science and research that most high school students never see in the years before college. For some, like Fernanda, the summer marks the beginning of a sustained interest in engaging with the big questions scientists have left to answer. The Stanford program seeks to provide these opportunities for self-discovery to high school students, and grants them access to realms of thought, lab resources, and an atmosphere of learning that may spark a lifelong interest in science and research.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with several of the interns as they neared the conclusion of the 2014 program.  We talked about their work, what they took from the experience working at Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences, and what they valued most about the opportunity to work in active research labs.  Have a listen! (Click play on the audio player at the top of the page. A transcript of the audio follows.)

 

 

Audio Transcript:

Alessandra Santiago: Thanks for joining us. My name is Alessandra Santiago, and I am a senior and co-terminal Masters student in the Earth Systems Program at Stanford. Today, I will be guiding you through the Stanford School of Earth Sciences High School Internship Podcast, where we will meet a number of high school students that have just finished up their eight-week long program on campus. Each year, the Stanford school of Earth Sciences welcomes thirty to forty high school students from around the bay area to spend the summer engaging with science and research. Students pursue a project in a wide array of disciplines, ranging from paleobiology to geology to biological oceanography. For many, this is their first time encountering science in a research lab setting.

Jennifer Rascon: So, my name is Jennifer Rascon. I come from Yerba Buena High School in San Jose. This is my first year doing this internship at Stanford.

Sid Idgunji: My name is Sid Idgunji. I’m from San Jose. I go to Lynbrook High School. This is my first time doing this internship at Stanford as well.

Jennifer: We’re looking into ostracods.

Sid: What we’re trying to look at is the body size evolution of these ostracods. They’re like sea shrimp, right? So, we’re trying to look at their body size throughout time.  It’s a great opportunity to look at what ancient life was like. Also, you get to learn so many different things, and it’s just a great experience to be here.

Jennifer: There’s so much you can learn from looking at rocks. And it’s something that maybe we all take for granted, but it’s a good experience. It’s a lot of work, hands on work, which is something that we don’t always get to do maybe back at our schools.

Alessandra: For some students, this is their second summer in either the general internship or the history of life internship at Stanford. Some have chosen to continue with the same research between years, while others have chosen to explore new research areas.

Catherina Xu: My name is Catherina Xu. I’m from Sunnyvale, California, so that’s about twenty minutes away from here. And I went to Homestead High School. So, I chose to do the general internship program because I was interested, or more interested in biology. And, the other History of Life program, as I understand because I did it last year, is more focused on paleobiology - basically using ostracods to see what the climate was like in the past. So, for the History of Life program, what we did most of the summer was collect data on ostracods. I learned a lot about data analysis, and then this year, I got a much more wet lab experience. I got to go in and actually extract the data. It’s really amazing being a part of this program especially with a great mentor. Even as part of the History of Life, I learned a lot. Just the learning experience of both of these programs is really amazing. This program, we learned about PCR, things like that, that we didn’t have the chance to go into detail in high school. It doesn’t matter if you’re interested in the earth science, but knowing that it can basically apply to anything else you want to learn, like skills you learn in chemistry and biology can help you if you want to be a molecular biochemist. So, I think that having this experience, no matter what you want to go into is really valuable.

Jared Fernandez: My name is Jared Fernandez. I’m going to be a senior at Homestead High School this fall. So, I’m interning in a lab with Kim Blisniuk. The lab is the cosmogenic radiation lab in Mitchell. What we’re doing is we’re using isotopes of beryllium to date rocks that have been on the surface. So, when rocks are exposed to the surface, the longer they are on the surface, they’re bombarded by cosmogenic rays which alter the beryllium isotopes. So, once you have the ratios of those isotopes, you can date those rocks. That’s your raw data. And you can use that data to find other stuff, like slip rates. That’s the big thing for us right now. This year, I’ve been given more responsibility than I had last summer. This is my second year doing it. This year, I’m just focusing on - we’re processing a lot of the samples. I do enjoy the lab work part of this, and it’s really interesting to know that what I’m contributing to this is helping with someone’s research, and that can make an impact somewhere later. Getting the chance to know that what you’re doing can leave an impact somewhere or someone can find it later and say, “Oh, he did that. That’s cool, he made an impact on something.” You want to know that there’s some lasting impact.

Alessandra: At the end of the eight weeks, the students are asked to present their findings to their fellow interns. The exhibition process is a time for the students to reflect on their work, and what they gained from the internship experience.

Jennifer: It’s helped me be more, I would say, consistent. For me to get here, it’s already a long journey, you know? So it takes a lot of commitment, and it’s helped me get my head in the game and be more focused and see what I want to do. And it’s opened up another door into a new way of seeing science, because I’ve never learned this.

Sid: I’ve always liked science, so for me, it was knowing what it’s like having a career in the scientific field. I might actually come back here next year. Yeah, it was a lot of fun, and something I would definitely want to look at again.

Catherina: I thought that this program, having already experienced it before, I think it was a great program. It was really organized, like every single week we had something to do. We had field trips. I think it was a good experience, and that’s why I decided to come back. I thought that it would be a nice time to actually learn something during a time when I could just be watching movies, taking the time to learn something even though it’s not to put on college apps anymore.

Jared: If you think you might at all be interested in Earth sciences, maybe you just did it one class quickly over the summer, this gives you the opportunity to know if this is really what you care about. Because, even if you think, “I might be interested in science,” this can show you that, yes, this is something you want to do, this is something you’re very passionate about. Once you find something that you’re passionate about, it’s really amazing, because then you can, it’s something that you genuinely care about beyond just being here because I want to just keep moving myself through the world.  

Alessandra: Thanks for listening. For Stanford University’s School of Earth Sciences, I’m Alessandra Santiago.

Audio recorded by Alessandra Santiago (co-terminal Masters student in the Earth Systems program) and co-produced by Alessandra Santiago and Miles Traer (multimedia producer).

For more information about the Stanford School of Earth Sciences high school internship program, please contact Jennifer Saltzman.