Before starting their virtual internships at City of Hope this summer, none of the San Gabriel Valley teenagers who had signed up were quite sure what bioscience research really was. “Now 80% of the interns plan to continue towards the biotech/healthcare trajectory,” says Amy Foell, Consultant for Workforce Development at the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership. Foell coordinates a project which connects City of Hope to local high schools to bolster local students’ professional skills, while giving them a glimpse of the world of scientific research.
City of Hope – a world-class treatment and research center for cancer and diabetes headquartered in Duarte – joined forces with the K12 Foothill Consortium, which arranges training experiences for students in northeastern Los Angeles County, and the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership (SGVEP), an economic development group aimed at improving the business culture and quality of life across the San Gabriel Valley.
The program included mentoring in professional skills and explaining bioscience research. It culminated in intern teams producing Public Service Announcements about a variety of crucial topics: Gestational Diabetes, COVID-19 Facts, and Stem Cell Research. This tested not only their knowledge and soft skills, but their organizational and technological abilities as well.
Students were mentored by Ph.D. students from the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences at City of Hope through its graduate student outreach committee. The graduate students were eager to pay forward what they had received from their own mentors.
“Participating in these events is very important to me as a first-generation Mexicana-Americana in STEM,” said Diana Esparza, a City of Hope Ph.D. candidate studying early diagnostic tools for type 2 diabetes. “Programs like this one helps grow confidence and awareness in the next generation of scientists, letting them know that they CAN make it. Therefore, it was a tremendous pleasure to share my cultural experiences and the plethora of resources that were provided to me by my own compassionate mentors.”
Her fellow mentor Alicia Davis, a City of Hope Ph.D. candidate studying novel therapeutics for COVID-19 and lung cancer, agrees. “Having enthusiastic and supportive role models during such a pivotal time such as high school is essential,” she said. Particularly in a year when high school students were bereft of regular interactions, the support received from enthusiastic mentors made quite a difference.
Megan Orellana (Charter Oak High School, Class of 2022) for example, was thrilled to connect personally with her mentor, Heather Zook, at a personal level. “I have had several meetings with Heather outside of the internship,” Orellana says, “and we have discussed more about college and different careers. Her background is very similar to mine in a way that makes it very comforting to chat with her. I’d say my perspective on not only the medical field but also the people in the medical field has definitely grown and changed in a positive way.”
Locally-trained bioscience researchers are keenly needed for the continued health of the San Gabriel Valley economy. The region is home to a growing technology corridor hosting numerous companies working in photonics, biotechnology, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing. The significant growth potential for these industries is limited only by the lack of a suitably qualified workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
“Supporting and encouraging our San Gabriel Valley high school interns is a true passion of mine,” attests Robin Clayton, Director of Talent Acquisition at City of Hope. “We must start encouraging and exposing students at a young age about the diverse careers in health care. Our hope is that once the interns complete their education, they consider returning to City of Hope to begin their professional journey and continue remembering the importance of our mission and values.”
The hard work of the mentors, interns, and supporting institutions appears to be taking root. “I have always assumed research was boring, but in reality it’s so fascinating,” enthuses Sonia Pena, Gladstone High School (Class of 2022). “The things you discover are amazing. You really never know about something until you dive deep into it.”
Hopefully in the near future, these high schoolers will all dive deep into their chosen fields and pay forward the knowledge gained from City of Hope to the generation after them.