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Thursday, Sep 28, 2023

Tour of Institute Helps Lure Students to Science

Education: Program

Promotes Science as a

Possible Career Path


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Staff Writer

They came, they saw, they learned.

It was a bustling scene at the renowned Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla last week as many high school students flocked to the campus to get a taste of real-life at work and to quiz scientists.

Some 1,200 students from 25 local high schools took up Scripps’ invitation for a half-day visit Jan. 7.

For Dona Mapston, a biology teacher at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley, it was just the opportunity she’s been seeking.

“This is a good way to let my students see a real-life lab situation and research in action,” said Mapston as students walked toward their first site, the Buddy Taub Center for Molecular Structure and Design.

Gerard Kroon, a biochemist dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, greeted Mapston’s 14 students with a big smile and a warning: Stay behind the drawn line, Kroon directed, as students looked at a massive steel machine that self-importantly filled up a vast, empty space.

The silver giant, called a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer, is one of Scripps’ jewels. Few research institutions are lucky enough to have one, Kroon said.

The sophisticated machine allows scientists to determine the structure of molecules.

That’s important because sometimes one structural change in a molecule can cause disease, Kroon explained.

It uses a magnetic field to look at molecules and radiates enough energy to erase credit cards strips, decode cell phones and pull a person toward it, Kroon said. And the students took his word for it.

But as with most things in science, the intangible remained a mystery to many students, who preferred a more hands-on approach.

At the second stop on the tour, Dwayne Stupack, another young scientist in the department of immunology, provided students with an inside look at cell activity.

Kathy Spencer, a microscopist, elicited some “ahhs” with a virtual tour of hungry cells that migrated toward dinner , a solution of growth-factor cells.

She explained it wasn’t until 20 years ago that scientists began to ask questions using living cells.

“Not too long ago, people used formaldehyde to kill cells and look for things,” Spencer said.

Ezequias Sanabria, 17, who applied to Point Loma Nazarene College’s zoology department, said the presentations, while interesting, confirmed that molecular biology isn’t for him.

Sanabria, a pastor’s son, said he comes from a family of science enthusiasts. His five siblings are all biologists.

Students Pursuing Science

Jon Rankin, 17, said he enjoyed the tour, but won’t be on the lab bench anytime soon.

Rankin dreams of becoming a medical doctor and is hoping to be accepted at UCSD’s biology department.

Mapston said about 50 percent of her students expressed an interest in pursuing science in college. Many already took advanced science courses at Monte Vista High.

Jennifer Haynes, 18, a first-year student at UCSD and recent Monte Vista graduate, remains grateful to Mapston for steering her in the right direction.

“I used to want to go into political science,” Haynes said. But Mapston, who recognized Haynes’ talent, wouldn’t have it. She turned her on to “genetics” and Haynes never looked back.

Others like Shaun Kiever found the science fair interesting, but would have liked to see more action.

Kiever also described Kroon as being “eccentric,” a characteristic that his teacher attributes to Kroon’s Dutch accent.

Kroon, who smiles easily, took it with good humor.

“In a way we are eccentric,” Kroon admitted. “We get excited about things where (other people would) say ‘What’s the big deal?’ ”

He added, “We have a collection of science nerds all around, but since we are working with scientists from around the world; it’s nice to see the cultures together.”

Kroon said he enjoyed bringing his work to high school students and sympathized with some of the students’ frustration in understanding the “untouchable.”

“It’s hard to imagine what exactly is going on, but I think they got a taste of what it’s like in a research institute,” he said.

Drawing Students To Science

Robin Goldsmith, spokeswoman for the institute, saw it as a way to expose students to a career in science.

“We wanted to draw attention to the importance of science and innovation and get students excited about the possibilities of an academic or professional career,” Goldsmith said.

With Mapston’s students, Scripps scored big.

“The students like it,” Mapston said. “They only wished they would have gotten to see more.”

Maybe next year. Goldsmith said she sent out a survey to all participating teachers, which will determine in part whether there will be a repeat.


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