By Haelin Cho
Despite the early morning carpools and two-hour bus rides, Deng-Tung Wang makes the long commute to Stanford University four times a week. Previously, a “normal” summer for him involved teaching younger kids at his mother’s summer camp. But this summer, Wang’s work environment was a little bit different; he took part in the Raising Interest in Science and Engineering (RISE) summer internship.
RISE, recognizing the lack of opportunities for underrepresented or underprivileged youth, aims to help students further their interests and careers in the sciences through a seven-week, hands-on internship. The program targets high schoolers who are historically not well-represented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) pipeline or are from low-income families. Many are the first in their family to attend college.
“RISE has a focus on students who may not have other opportunities and resources available to them,” said Kaye Storm, director of the program’s Office of Science Outreach. “They all have good grades, good academic records, but they don’t necessarily have a network or family support to help them explore a career in science and engineering.”
RISE students are Bay Area high schoolers paired with a mentor and, in some cases, a professor, to work on research projects. Some are from underrepresented backgrounds; others are from low-income families.
Wang is one of the 25 students interning at RISE this summer. A rising senior at Leigh High School in San Jose, Wang worked on a project involving biomolecules with mentor Michael Keeney, a postdoctoral research fellow, and Fan Yang, a biomedical engineering professor. Wang worked very closely with his postdoctoral mentor, but he also met with Yang once a week for a scheduled meeting and discussion of the data.
According to Storm, most RISE students work mainly with their postdoctoral mentors. For their research, they are compensated with a $2,500 stipend funded by family and corporate foundations like Genentech and Microsoft. According to Storm, these corporations’ generosity is crucial to the program.
“The reason that we even pay them and don’t just have them come as volunteers is because… most of them need to work during the summer, either because they’re saving for college or, in some cases, just to help support the family,” Storm said. “I mean, it’s great to have volunteer programs, but you are then closing yourself off to the lowest income kids who just can’t afford to be a volunteer for the summer.”
Despite what seem to be long odds for many of these students, all RISE alumni have gone on to college and most, around 80 percent, major in the sciences.
For Wang, RISE’s opportunity exposed him to opportunities in the sciences. With his school facing financial difficulties, high-tech experiments like those at Stanford were not options open for Wang until RISE. Consequently, Wang said that the experience helped him narrow his broad interest in biology to a more specific field– currently, bioengineering. But the challenges of lab science were not lost on him.
“One thing I really got out of this entire experience was how hard and how difficult science can be and how important careful procedure or precise data analysis proved to be when it comes to presentations or the actual, overall project experience,” he said. “[Until now], I really had no idea what science in a lab setting was really about.”
This sort of hands-on science education is the primary goal of RISE, according to Storm. With the United States facing more international competition than ever before in the fields of science and technology, Storm is convinced that science programs for underrepresented youth can impact far more than just the youth involved.
“I think for our country’s global competitiveness, we need a workforce that is very strong in science and engineering, and if we can do that in a more homegrown way… that’s all the better, ” she said.