Feature story: RISEing to the occasion

Stanford reaches out to give disadvantaged youths a crack at science

On the rocky coastline of Monterey, a group of young students snap white latex gloves onto their bare hands: They are ready to dissect.

With every second, each student moves closer to the surgical subject: a 2-foot long Humboldt squid, also known as El Diablo Rojo, or the Red Devil. The scientist conducting the dissection grabs a scalpel and slices through crimson skin into the body. A saline ooze gushes out from the squid as the young students "oooh" and "aaah" in amazement. Their eyes stay frozen on the squid; the only sound heard is the splashing of gentle waves into the tide pools below.

The students participating in the dissection are part of the RISE (Raising Interest in Science and Engineering) Summer Internship, sponsored by Stanford University's Office of Science Outreach. RISE selects students from high schools across the Bay Area who normally wouldn't have the opportunity to enroll in a high-quality science program -- teenagers who want to do more with their summer than hang out.

Earlier in the summer, the youth learned how electric vehicles are designed, researched colony behavior in insects, and observed surgery procedures at Stanford Hospital.

The purpose of the program, which was created in 2006, is to "focus on serving kids who are under-represented in the science community," Director of Science Outreach Kaye Storm said. Eighty percent of the 2010 RISE interns are the first members of their family bound for college, she added.

This year, the select 22 worked on the Stanford campus in the fields of biology, engineering and computer and educational sciences, with each student assigned a project in one of those fields.

Jackson Campbell's specialty was paleontology, or the study of prehistoric organisms. More specifically, Campbell studied "the effect of the variation of atmospheric oxygen levels throughout the Phanerozoic on the size of foraminifera tests."

While that might be intimidating to the layperson, Campbell finds complex microbiology interesting. He knew he wanted to work in science at the age of 9 after watching a documentary on the science behind the AIDS virus, HIV.

Campbell, a soon-to-be-senior at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, says he loves studying how certain organisms live and interact. During the squid dissection, Campbell was constantly asking questions.

"Is it possible to see the brain?" he asked. "Do squids rely on a peripheral vision to hunt?"

His curiosity drives his scientific learning.

"My philosophy is if I know how certain things function, then I can find ways to fight them," he said.

At first, he found working on the Stanford campus "a little intimidating," but the feeling faded because RISE provided him with the "encouragement and support to complete his projects."

Now Campbell has the confidence to pursue a career in science. Although both of Campbell's parents went to college, he will be the first to study science.

Campbell said he would be happy studying microbiology at Stanford, UC San Diego or UC Santa Barbara. Like the graduate students who mentored him, Campbell said he hopes to turn his passion for science into a career.

Mentors, usually graduate students, are assigned to help each student achieve individual goals.

"We usually pick grad students because they are closer in age to the high school students," Storm said. "They are someone they can connect to."

One of those mentors is Matthew Knope, a doctorate student in biology at Stanford. His research revolves around adaptive radiation, the study of how many different species branch off from a single ancestor. The most famous example of this is Darwin's finches of the Galapagos, which evolved from a single ancestor that flew over from the mainland of South America.

Knope and his RISE protégée, Christine Kyauk, are testing the adaptive radiation of microorganisms, such as bacteria, by manipulating their test-tube environments through the introduction of viruses. The work might seem daunting to some high school students, but Knope said his intern has had few problems.

"It's really not that complicated," Knope said. "The students are really motivated; we read papers and do lab work. If you give people the opportunity, they can do this stuff."

He said the RISE interns are dynamic and do a lot of work on their own.

"A testament to their motivation is that they want to spend their time in labs over the summer," he said.

Some interns already have scientific specializations that they want to pursue in college. Kyauk, for example, is interested in co-evolution, or the study of the change of a biological object triggered by the change of a related object.

However, this is not the case for every student in the RISE program. There are those who have trouble finding the subject or specialization that motivates them.

To help those students, Storm said that RISE provides research that concentrates on both "depth and breadth." Students who already know the scientific direction they want to take can focus deep into specific research. Students who are unclear on a specialization, Storm said, will study many topics and find that specialization or "discover what they don't want to do."

One of the most valuable components of the program is the genuine college atmosphere and experience, Storm said.

"The program helps students feel comfortable on college campuses. It increases their confidence," she said.

It is important for first-generation college students to have confidence. Otherwise many students will hit that first hard course, think that they do not belong and then drop out, she said. RISE helps teens learn not to take the mistakes they make so personally.

Late afternoon inside Stanford's Packard Engineering Building lobby, stark sunlight gleams through the skylight and reflects off white rafters. The RISE students have congregated with faculty, family and friends for an end-of-the-program celebration.

All around the room are posters displaying their work. The topics range from the ultra-specific (Determination of Pyrethroids through Liquid-Liquid extraction and G/C-ECD) to the slightly more comprehensible (Creating Science Labs for Students in a Hospital Setting).

Kaye Storm reads off the students' names while they walk up to receive a certificate signifying their achievements. Audience members give each of them enthusiastic applause. After the ceremony, friends, family and colleagues congregate in small groups to socialize or read about the projects.

"I can't believe we are done with high school," one RISE student said to her friend. She is moving on to college to study science, excited about the opportunity to come.

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Like this comment
Posted by RISE?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 14, 2010 at 9:47 am

RISE, eh? This is just a thinly veiled attempt to indoctrinate our kids about global warming and rising sea levels.

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