Science internship introduces high schoolers to research

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Whether they are traveling all over the world or are at home studying for the August SATs, Harker students do a variety of different activities over the duration of summer vacation. For sixteen high schoolers in particular, their break was spent at the Summer Internship Program (SIP), an eight-week long research internship opportunity at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Based in a professional laboratory setting, SIP matches each intern with a mentor from the university who is currently working on a project that aligns with that student’s interests. With topics ranging from astrophysics to biology, the different fields allow high schoolers to pursue their passion for STEM and gain hands-on experience with tackling real-world research problems.

Dr. Raja GuhaThakurta, director of SIP and UCSC astronomy professor, believes that this is a summer program that provides high school students with the opportunity to not only learn about critical thinking in the context of open-ended research but also about sharing the outcomes of one’s project in a formal presentation.

“At the end of the summer, we ask [students] to step back from where they’ve reached [in their research] and explain [their project] to an audience who is not on their level of understanding,” GuhaThakurta said. “That’s a very difficult thing to do with something highly technical that you’re completely embedded in — it takes a tremendous degree of sophistication and communication.”

For junior Allison John, her project “Braingineers” gave her the chance to learn about these important skills through the process of designing small microscopes that monitor the growth of groups of stem cells and using computer vision to implement image analysis techniques.

“I was very excited to contribute to something that so many people had put so much effort into,” Allison said. “[This experience] taught me to keep trying things when it wasn’t working and to keep pushing and persevering instead of just giving up.”

Also providing students with the option of living in the dorms at UCSC, SIP resembles a college atmosphere, where at the end of a work day, interns can enjoy spending time with their peers outside of the lab.

“I stayed in the dorms for a week, where I got to interact with some other SIP interns,” sophomore Alice Feng said. “Everyone had their own project, and we were all excited and interested in each other’s projects to get a better view of the [research] that is happening at the university.”

SIP began when upper school science department chair Anita Chetty sent three Harker high schoolers to UCSC in the summer of 2009 to do research under the mentorship of GuhaThakurta. Initially an opportunity for a couple students to gain laboratory experience, it gradually became a program for teenagers all over the country to immerse themselves in a unique research project for the entire summer.

Provided by Teresa Cai
Teresa Cai (10) conducts a chemistry experiment under a fume hood at UCSC. Sixteen Harker students participated in the Summer Internship Program.

“It didn’t have a name — it wasn’t called SIP, and we didn’t even think it was a program. It was just a little experiment that Ms. Chetty and I were trying,” GuhaThakurta said. “We decided to try again next year, and there were 15 students. It kept growing like that: in the following year it was 29, then 43, 51, 68, 104, 142, 157, 165 and now 180.”

While SIP itself may have expanded in size over the last decade, one thing that hasn’t changed is the program’s objective to give students the chance to thoroughly explore a niche research topic that they are interested in and can continue pursuing in the future. Bryan Wang (12), along with his partner Rishi Dange (12), participated in the program for the second year in a row this year so that they could continue working in the same lab and further investigating their research project.

“I think all interns leave with a much better understanding of the actual research process and gain experience delving deep into a topic, which is more valuable and more significant than the actual content matter,” Bryan said. “Leaving SIP, I’ve learned how to look into problems and think about them holistically, outside of a purely academic setting.”

GuhaThakurta expresses this same sentiment, asserting that research provides high schoolers with opportunities that cannot be found in an average class curriculum.

“The world is filled with problems that need to be solved and haven’t yet been solved. If you’re only solving problems that others have already solved, we’re not doing our students any great favor because that’s not how the real world operates,” GuhaThakurta said. “I’m not saying that [research] is going to be easy, but it’s never good for human beings to not be challenged. If we’re in our comfort zone all the time, we’re never going to grow.”