With her personalized lab coat and confident use of technical terminology, it is easy to forget that Katherine Catalan is an 18-year-old senior at San Fernando High School rather than an experienced dental researcher.
But after excitedly discussing her research project on gene expression and its effect on inflammation of the mouth, she starts to talk about the dining hall food she’s eaten for the past three weeks.
“I really like the ice cream,” Catalan said with a smile. “I think my mom’s sad because she thinks I like UCLA food more than her home cooking.”
Living in the dorms and doing research in the dental school laboratories is just part of the UCLA School of Dentistry’s Pipeline Program for Dentists-Scientists, a summer program geared toward high school students.
The two-year commitment is part of an initiative funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization, to encourage more minority students to consider science as a career, said Dr. Marvin Marcus, a professor emeritus at the dental school and one of the program’s directors.
To select the program participants, the dental school partners with organizations like College Bound and Project GRAD, which focus on helping underrepresented students get into college. These groups choose students interested in science from schools across Southern California.
“The basic idea is that this country needs scientists,” Marcus said. “We need more diversity in our scientific community.”
During their junior year, the 17 selected students come to monthly Saturday sessions at UCLA to learn lab techniques, scientific jargon and information about the research projects.
In the summer, postdoctoral scholars, graduate students and faculty team up with the students for six weeks of independent college living and rigorous research.
For many of the students, the summer program is the first time they have done any real lab work.
This is the case for Ruby Enriquez, a 17-year-old senior at San Fernando High School. She said her low-income school didn’t have enough resources for laboratory experiments.
Many of her peers had similar experiences.
“At my high school, these were made of plastic,” said Amechi Macfoy, 17, as he picked up a glass pipette from the lab table.
Catalan’s lab partner, Lauren Williams, chimed in after Macfoy.
“The microscopes here actually let you see detailed images, not the general big picture like the ones at my school,” said Williams, a 17-year-old senior from Redlands High School.
Student projects range from studying oral cancer drug therapies to researching the possible link between protein expression and oral cancer.
Away from the lab, the students experience a small slice of college living. Nighttime means visits to each other’s dorm rooms in Rieber Terrace and watching movies in Westwood Village.
This kind of cameraderie has helped some of the students overcome their initial feelings of homesickness, Catalan said.
After the summer, the students will continue their work by writing up their results and eventually presenting their research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention.
Last year, several program participants won first-, second- and third-place awards, as well as an overall excellence award for their work.
The rankings beat out other high school students, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and junior faculty from around the nation, Marcus said.
This kind of hands-on experience separates these students from other college applicants, Marcus said.
The program boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate, and many of the students go on to pre-medical or pre-dental tracks at schools such as Rutgers University, Howard University and UCLA.
This year’s participants have similarly high aspirations.
Christopher Pride, a 17-year-old senior from Whittier Christian, said he hopes to attend Stanford University or Duke University and plans to major in science.
Carlos Anaya, 17, already has his sights set on MIT for its research emphasis and beautiful campus, he said.