'We look for that spark'

Summer high school internship program inspires students from backgrounds often underrepresented in science
23 high school science interns pose for a group photo on the spiral staircase in the atrium of the Arnold Building on Fred Hutch's campus
More than 20 rising high school seniors are participating in Fred Hutch's summer science internship program, now in its fourth year. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Olivia Martins knows she loves biology but doesn’t know yet exactly where it might take her.

This rising high school senior hopes that spending a summer at Fred Hutch will help her explore the possibilities. Martins is one of 23 seniors who joined Fred Hutch’s summer high school internship program, which kicked off Monday.  

“Biology was always my favorite subject. I wanted to see a real-life application of the things we do in school,” she said.

The program, now in its fourth year, is geared toward, but not limited to, students from racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds often underrepresented in science. The goal is to provide them with education and opportunities and to have them eventually contribute to diversifying the biomedical workforce.

“Diverse people bring diverse perspectives,” said Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, transplant biologist at Fred Hutch and the intern program’s director. “This moves things in directions you might not have expected or, at the very least, faster in the direction that you want to go because a diverse group will bring different components to the puzzle.”

Torok-Storb explained that she comes from an impoverished background, and growing up she didn’t know that job opportunities like those at Fred Hutch existed. Support from teachers and mentors enabled her to thrive in a way that she once thought was impossible.

A life-changing opportunity

 “I think that exposure to people in a field that you don’t even know about can change your life — it did for me at least, and I want to provide that opportunity to other students,” she said.

During their eight weeks on the Fred Hutch campus, interns learn research processes and techniques, work on projects and participate in workshops led by staff members. Torok-Storb noted the interns’ responsibilities will vary depending on which of the labs they are assigned to work in.

One full week is spent in the training labs getting hands-on experience in laboratory safety techniques and skills. Interns are then assigned in pairs  to a host mentor who will supervise them over the remaining seven weeks on specific projects or activities. They’ll also attend weekly workshops and seminars. 

Liza Ray, a science education specialist who works with Torok-Storb to design and execute the program, said students gain stronger problem-solving skills and a better understanding of the scientific community.

“They realize that scientists are real people, they don’t live in a lab coat,” Ray said. “It demystifies what it means to be a scientist and makes the profession achievable for them.” 

Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutch, said he sees the internship program as a way to help students think about what they want to do with their lives.

“What do you want to say that you’ve accomplished in your life when you’re my age and you have grey hair?” he said during an ice cream social to welcome them last week. “You’re so important for our future. We need people who are moving into science at a time where there is incredible opportunity for developing new treatments and cures for cancer.”

‘We look for that spark’

Torok-Storb and Ray chose the 23 new interns from more than 200 applicants from Everett to Olympia. Applications are evaluated based on an algorithm in which students receive points for various qualities. One evaluation point is diversity, including being of ethnic minority, having a disability or coming from a low-income area. But, Torok-Storb, said, students need more than one of these traits to be selected for the internship. 

“We look for that spark,” she said. “They’re not doing this because their dad wants them to do it or because somebody said they should do this, it’s because they want to do it, and they know what it’s going to mean.”

Mentors in the program — scientists from throughout the Hutch — work on a volunteer basis, driven by their passion for both teaching and sharing their love of science.

“I love my science,” Torok-Storb said.  “But I think that for many of us in science, our biggest contribution is what we do for the next generation. We’re not all going to win a Nobel Prize, but education is a big contribution.”                                                                                 

Simran Handa, a recent graduate from Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, who is returning to the program for her second summer and is a lead intern, said working at Fred Hutch helped her grow and taught her how she can apply science to make the world a better place.  

“[Mentors] understand that this is a learning experience,” said Handa, who will be attending Lewis & Clark College in the fall and plans to major in biochemistry and international affairs. “It has helped me increase my confidence and to not be afraid of asking questions. It’s really helpful to see scientists do what I want to be doing.” 

Faculty members said interns gain self-confidence and critical thinking skills that will help them in whichever field they choose to pursue.

“When they arrive we often see them as quiet, sometimes a little scared, and then we see them leave with brazen confidence,” Ray said. “They feel such a sense of belonging here. Seeing the students embrace the philosophy of our biomedical research community, and importantly our community embracing these students, is really amazing.”

Megan Herndon is a writing intern on the Fred Hutch news team. She is a rising senior at the University of Washington where she is majoring in journalism, minoring in French and pursuing a Certificate of Sales. Reach her at mherndon@fredhutch.org.

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