Qualcomm Institute Summer Scholars Program Brings High School Students into the Lab

By Tiffany Fox

San Diego, Calif., Sept. 24, 2014 — Ask Gompers Preparatory Academy senior Daniel Ortiz what he did last summer and you’re not likely to hear anything about the beach or video games.

Daniel Ortiz
Daniel Ortiz

Spending summer break “synthesizing nanoparticle spheres” is more Ortiz’s speed, and for eight weeks that’s just what he did, working with University of California, San Diego Associate Professor Andrea Tao of the Nanoengineering Department to explore how these tiny nanoparticles interact with light. Ortiz got the gig as part of the Qualcomm Institute High School Summer Scholars program, which is now in its second year at UC San Diego and this year accepted 18 students from Gompers, Lincoln High School and the Preuss School at UC San Diego. 

Eight of the high school students in the program were so-called “research scholars,” which meant they spent 20 hours per week working in on-campus laboratories with faculty and graduate students, conducting cutting-edge research. Each research scholar had a faculty mentor and an undergraduate mentor, and all participants in the program were required to attend seminars on resume-building, networking, creating research posters, public speaking and more. 

Ortiz says the experience is one he probably never would have had were he not part of the program. He felt the Summer Scholars training on job interviews was especially valuable. 

“Really, at my age you haven’t had any workshops in that area, unless you’re lucky enough to have people around you who can offer you some experience,” he adds.. “I learned how to answer questions like ‘What is your greatest weakness?’ by talking about what I’m working to improve, because when you’re improving on something it shows it’s a progression.”

Finding his way around the lab also proved to be a progression for Ortiz, who had no experience working in such an environment before coming to UC San Diego but suddenly found himself wearing a lab coat, goggles and gloves alongside researchers with years of experience. 

Joey Uy
Joey Uy

“I had to assimilate really quickly to my environment and would write down how to do the procedures as I went,” says Ortiz, who plans to apply to UC San Diego this year to study electrical engineering.  “The pace was fast for me but I had to adapt and keep going. It was kind of a challenge but it wasn’t too much -- I knew I could do it. In the end I got to assimilate to a professional environment and see what college is going to be like, and I really enjoyed it a lot. It was the best of everything. I don’t know where else you could work in a nanoengineering lab -- mixing chemicals and making something you never imagined you would do-- at the age of 16!”

Joey Uy, a senior at the Preuss School who worked in Nanoengineering Professor Joseph Wang’s lab, says the program was a perfect fit for him because “I like to experience many things I’ve never seen before and get accustomed to the unaccustomed.”

Uy spent the summer working with a chemical called hydrazine, which is used in nanomachines to propel rockets through an electromagnetic field. This required wearing a mask, taking safety precautions and learning the basics of statistical analysis. 

“What I learned was that research isn’t done just for the sake of research -- it’s also research for the sake of progressing the field,” says Uy. “The fact that I was able to contribute a small amount of data toward that was really fulfilling.”

Qualcomm Institute Project Coordinator Amira Noeuv, who oversees the program, notes that the curriculum for High School Scholars is actually derived from curriculum for the Calit2-Qualcomm Institute Summer Undergraduate Research Scholars program, which is held concurrently. Calit2 is the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, which is where the Qualcomm Institute is based.

Five of the Undergraduate Research Scholars -- selected by their peers -- will present summaries of their work for the QI staff at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 1 at the Calit2 Auditorium in Atkinson Hall. The presentations will be followed by a research poster session featuring the work of all Undergraduate Scholars. 

The High School Scholars also receive mentoring from undergraduates in the program, and some of the students from the inaugural High School Scholar class enjoyed the experience last year so much they served as ‘ambassadors’ for the program. 

“Guidance counselors tell us these students absolutely love the program,” says Noeuv. “For them it’s their first real internship and their first real experience taking the bus to campus, attending college-level seminars and working out their schedule with an advisor. A lot of times students don’t know what they want to do yet but they know they want to incorporate some science into their career choices. 

Elizabeth Gomez
Elizabeth Gomez

Noeuv notes that two students from the first High School Summer Scholar class are now enrolled at UC San Diego after spending last summer working in labs overseen by Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Assistant Professor Shadi Dayeh and Assistant Clinical Professor Nathaniel Heintzman of the School of Medicine. This year a total of eight faculty advisors chose to work with high school students, while another 12 worked with undergraduate scholars. 

Elizabeth Gomez, a Lincoln High Senior, enrolled in the program this summer as a “Seminar Scholar,” which doesn’t involve work in a lab but does still require participation in the Scholar seminars. Gomez says the exposure she got to the engineering research being pursued at UC San Diego -- especially the work in 3D visualization technologies at the Qualcomm Institute -- was a way to “see so many things I don’t normally get to see.”

She says she’s also grateful for the friendships she made while in the program, especially with the international students, who mainly hailed from Korea and worked with QI Research Assistant Jiajia Huang and ECE Department Chair Troung Nguyen. 

“I made so many friends and gained so much experience,” she enthuses. “I’m normally very shy but this program really shaped who I am now. A few of the people I met are engineers and gave me an idea for what I’d like to do. I’m taking discrete mathematics at school now, which is something I never thought I would do -- and I’m doing really well! The Summer Scholars program really inspired me to keep going. Everyone has a different path. I guess I’ve found mine.”

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

Related Links

High School Summer Scholars Program

Summer Undergraduate Research Scholars Program