By Margaret King
Cristina Perez dreams of becoming a pediatrician. By taking Futures Life Sciences classes through UC San Diego Extension, she has brought her career goals into sharper focus while gaining hands-on lab experience under the mentorship of accomplished STEM professionals.
“I feel like a real scientist in the classes, especially since we are in an actual lab,” says Cristina, a senior at Patrick Henry High School in the Del Cerro area of San Diego. “It’s fun, and what we are learning fascinates me a lot.”
Cristina is enrolled in a two-part Futures Life Science program created through a partnership between Extension and the Boz Life Science Research and Teaching Institute. She completed the first 9-week class, Cellular Biology, in December. The second class, Neurobiology, is currently under way.
The courses are part of Extension’s Futures program, which allows high school students to master skills needed for the jobs of the future. Courses are grouped under headings like Formulate Your Future for life science and Program Your Future for coding. Those who finish a course series earn Extension credits. Students can apply for scholarships to cover course costs.
Futures Life Sciences classes are held two evenings a week at the Pacific Beach labs of the Boz Institute, a nonprofit that provides full-immersion programs where students synthesize life science fundamentals, review literature, formulate hypotheses and design experiments.
The Life Sciences program isn’t Cristina’s first exposure to Futures. Earlier, she took a six-week summer course in web and app development that was offered at her high school. “That class motivated me to look into different areas to study, and it has also helped me in school, working with computers,” she says.
Cristina has had her sights on a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) for a while. She is leaning toward pediatrics for several reasons. “I enjoy working with kids,” she says. “I like the medical environment, and I like helping and caring for others.”
When she heard about the Futures Life Sciences program, she was eager to enroll.
In the Cellular Biology class, students started out by practicing lab skills, like how to use pipettes and other scientific utensils.
Then they worked in groups on a research project looking at how a chemical called GenX affects the expression of genes. The chemical, used in nonstick coatings, was introduced by DuPont in 2009 as a safer replacement for toxic perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). “We still don’t know much about GenX, which is why we did this experiment,” Cristina explains.
Each student group focused on one or two different genes. Cristina and her two lab partners looked at a gene that controls the body’s response to oxidative stress. This kind of stress causes cell damage that may be associated with chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
As a test subject, the students used a microscopic worm called C. elegans. “The instructors explained how C. elegans have similar genes to humans, and it’s a lot easier to work with the worms,” Cristina says.
She and her partners spread GenX on the worms’ food. Then the students extracted RNA to see whether the chemical had changed the activity of the worms’ oxidative stress gene.
The results were unmistakable. “We saw that the chemical made this gene express more,” Cristina says. “There was something going on inside the worms that caused an alert.”
Cristina says the results have made her more cautious about products made with GenX. “You can’t really avoid it entirely, but people could make changes in some of the utensils they use,” she says.
Before enrolling in the program, Cristina had already taken biology, chemistry and physics in high school. But the concepts presented in the Futures classes are much more advanced than what she has previously studied.
“It’s super high-level stuff for me,” she says. But if she struggles with certain concepts, help is always available: “Our instructors help us out a lot, so that makes it easier if we lack knowledge on certain things.”
In addition to giving students hands-on lab experience, the program allows them to sharpen their presentation and communication skills. For example, each group created a poster summing up their gene-expression experiment and presented their findings to parents and industry leaders at a reception at the Boz Institute.
“The instructors taught us how to prepare better for a presentation, how to answer questions that you may not know the answer to,” Cristina says. “It has helped me with presentations in school.”
She says she is learning from the instructors in ways that go far beyond the class curriculum. “They’re mentors, especially now, since I’m getting ready to go to college,” she says. “They have helped me with deciding what’s a good field for me and just giving me an inside view of what it’s like to be a scientist.”
After high school Cristina plans to attend community college before transferring to a four-year university – possibly UC San Diego. Her experience in the Futures classes has helped her understand what is most important to her in choosing a field of study.
“This class has made me realize that I do want to grow up as someone who helps others,” she says. “This was an opportunity to do that by finding out about the effects of the chemicals we’re exposed to. I want to use science to help and care for others.”
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