Guts And Glory

Student examining specimen under a microscope


Turns out, fish parts speak volumes, even under the rookie scalpels of local high school science students. Guided last fall by USD biology professor Sue Lowery, Mater Dei Science Academy students learned how exercise enhances aerobic performance in different varieties of fish, and they sliced into fish specimens to identify fast-twitch sprinter muscles, slow-twitch endurance muscles as well as various organs.

Not surprisingly, the students approached their gutting lab work with youthful vigor. “They just dove in,” says Annette Ketner, USD senior director of Foundation Relations, who attended the workshop. “They were loving every minute of it.”

The workshop marked the beginning of a three-year collaboration between USD and Mater Dei Catholic High School in Chula Vista. Funded by a grant from The ALSAM Foundation to encourage science education and careers, the program gets promising Mater Dei scientists into labs and research fields with USD professors as mentors. The participants, totaling about 20, come from Mater Dei’s Science Academy,an accelerated program for some of the school’s brightest students.

Workshops, field trips and special events – all developed and run by USD science faculty – give the academy students a glimpse into a vibrant scientific community and offer experiences that are reserved for graduate students at most universities. Additionally, a summer internship program gives four rising seniors the chance to conduct research with a USD professor and present a poster on the project.

“It’s mind-boggling for me because I never thought I’d be able to do college work while I’m still in high school, or to be able to work one-on-one with a professor,” says Nick Day, who interned in comparative physiology and is considering a major in biology or environmental science.

The program highlights the collaborative nature of the sciences and the unique undergraduate research opportunities at USD.

“The students see that this is more than just a science class,” says Pete Iovine, program manager and USD associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “There is an entire community out there that is interested in these questions. We like to think that, here, students really get hands-on training and that is the hallmark of a USD education in the sciences.”

The Science Academy students also explore college life by attending the annual Creative Collaborations student research expo, and then the juniors spend the night in the residence halls, each with a USD science student as host. “We got to know what it was like to be in college for a day,” says academy student Barbara Elenbaas, who plans to major in zoology or marine biology.

High expectations throughout the program have all of the students crunching calculus, working formulas and occasionally scratching their heads until the concepts click. And then, glory.

“In the beginning of the DNA workshop, they were saying it was over their heads. But by the end, they were high-fiving each other, saying, ‘I get it!'” says Bruce Edwards, assistant director of Foundation Relations.

“It’s so gratifying to know that our students are getting these advantages,” says Pat McGregor, Mater Dei science department chair and director of the Science Academy. “It is doing things for our students that we cannot do.”

The second year of the collaboration includes enhancements such as a broad theme to which all workshops and field trips tie a closer connection between the USD projects and Mater Dei lesson plans, enriching the entire curriculum for the students.

“We want to excel,” notes Iovine. “We want to do innovative things and we want the program to have sustainability. There is the energy and the will on USD’s side and the enthusiasm on Mater Dei’s side to do that. It’s been a very positive experience.” — Trisha J. Ratledge