San Marcos,
08:58 AM

STEM Summer Scholars Program Opens World of Possibilities

By Eric Breier

Julie Jameson sees firsthand the benefits students receive from participating in Cal State San Marcos’ STEM Summer Scholars Program.

Jameson, an assistant professor of biology at CSUSM, and fellow biology professor Betsy Read direct the program, which provides students an opportunity to gain valuable hands-on research experience while developing strong bonds with a faculty mentor.

The College of Science and Mathematics program also exposes students to career possibilities they may never have considered.

“Our students realize there’s more things out there than what they thought,” Jameson said. “The summer research programs help them figure out which career might be appropriate for them and it opens their eyes to a world of careers out there that they didn’t know existed.”

The annual 10-week program has received generous support from local companies, including Carlsbad-based ViaSat Inc. and Oceanside-based Genentech.

“These are wonderful examples of companies within the community investing in our students’ futures,” Jameson said.

The program recently received another boost as the recipient of a $75,000 Blasker Science & Technology Grant from the San Diego Foundation. The funds will help students receive increased pay next year so that they can focus solely on the program without worrying about a second summer job to make ends meet.

“It will allow us to put into place assessment, which we haven’t been able to do thoroughly yet, an alumni system where we can track our students over time and see where they end up,” Jameson said. “All of these will come into place thanks to this San Diego Foundation grant, which is going to really be amazing for the students.”

The program integrates research and education for undergraduate students. They are able to work closely with a faculty member as they formulate hypotheses, design and carry out experiments, collect data, analyze results and draw meaningful conclusions from their work.

There are also field trips and weekly seminars that provide additional learning and networking opportunities.

“I loved it,” said Karen Lopez, who participated in the program in 2015 and graduated from CSUSM in May with a degree in biotechnology. “If I could do it again I would.”

Jameson said the number of students selected each summer depends on funding, but it’s usually around 20.

This year’s participants kicked off the summer with a trip to ViaSat.

“It was a great tour,” Jameson said. “They have all these new buildings at ViaSat. All the students were just wide-eyed, so excited. This is a real job. This is where you could be in another year when you graduate.”

As a recent graduate herself, Lopez is starting to examine job possibilities. Read was her faculty mentor in the summer of 2015 and the two have maintained a strong bond. Read helped Lopez secure an internship last spring with a local biotechnology firm and sends Lopez leads on potential jobs.

Lopez said the ability to network and develop a stronger relationship with a faculty member through STEM Summer Scholars proved invaluable.

“When you’re in lab in class, you do something once for a week and that’s it,” Lopez said. “You hope you get it done and understand it. With the internship, you do something until you master it, in a sense. You have to do it well in order to continue to the next step.”

Each year, the STEM Summer Scholars Program concludes with a Student Showcase poster presentation that shows the methods, results and interpretation of the work they have done over the summer. This year’s Student Showcase, which is open to the public, is Aug. 10 at Jazzman’s Café & Bakery on campus.

Lopez said the poster presentation was a great way to close out her summer in the program and it was inspiring to see the work done by her fellow participants.

Jameson tells students at the beginning of the summer that their résumé will look completely different by the end of the 10 weeks because they will have so many accomplishments to add.

And the experience gained often leads to a pleasant dilemma as Lopez found out from her time as a STEM Summer Scholar. Before participating, Lopez was convinced that she would work on the business side of biotechnology, partly because she was unsure of her ability on the lab side. But working closely with Read showed her that she has options.

“Now I see that I can do either one,” Lopez said. “That’s what I gained from the internship, more confidence in my ability in lab. I felt like, ‘I want to go to the business side because I can’t do the science side.’ Now I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can do the science side.’ ”