Oscar Tinoco smiles as he prepares a mixed solution in a large tube. The solution will eventually form a gel to be used as a medium in a polymerase chain reaction, a process which amplifies copies of a strand of DNA.
Tinoco, along with his lab partner Julian Garcia, are Allan Hancock College students serving as plant genetics research interns for biological sciences assistant professor Ed Himelblau.
Because of a $848,000 grant funded by the National Institutes of Health Division of Minority Opportunities in research, Tinoco, Garcia and 12 other AHC students are serving as paid research interns at Cal Poly as part of the Bridges to the Baccaulaureate program.
The students work for a maximum 30 hours a week and are paid $10 an hour under the supervision of Cal Poly faculty. The grant pays for up to $500 in research supplies for the projects and the students can also apply for funding to attend national or state conferences with their professors to make presentations on any research findings.
The program, brought to Cal Poly in 2009, provides underrepresented minority students the opportunity to engage in hands-on research projects in the fields of biological sciences, kinesiology, engineering and psychology. The underrepresented minority groups include blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and U.S. Pacific Islanders.
The goal is to have these underrepresented students earn degrees in biomedical or behavioral science and ultimately have a science-related career, biological sciences professor Elena Keeling said.
“I think that we, as faculty members, as university professionals, have an obligation to try to make those opportunities available to everyone, and that’s only going to end up benefiting everyone,” Keeling, who also supervises an AHC student, said. “It’s not that I think that all of the students in the Bridges program have to decide to be science majors … I just want them to know that they could.”
Garcia said diversity in the workplace is best for the spread of ideas.
“Diversity means a lot,” Garcia said. “Minorities can add a lot to the table … It’s not just a certain ethnicity that can add everything, so I think diversity is a great thing.”
Tinoco said she agrees.
“Different backgrounds, different experiences, can contribute to how far working together can take us,” Tinoco said. “I think we’ll be able to make more progress.”
The program is also important because it provides students the opportunity to do academic projects they might not be able to do otherwise, Keeling said.
“At a community college like Hancock, it’s a lot harder to get those research experiences that we can provide at Cal Poly,” Keeling said. “It’s not that they can’t get them at all, but it’s certainly much harder. Everyone should get a chance to have that experience and see what it’s like.”
Keeling said students even learn things unrelated to science when conducting research.
“You learn things about troubleshooting, and solving problems, and being persistent and stubborn and keeping at something even when it’s not working, and that’s a useful experience for people to have,” she said.
Some of the topics the students research include: cells that enable regeneration in small invertebrae, suppression of human emotions in social settings, the effect of alcohol on post-exercise muscle development, regrowth in rats and other topics.
The topics are based on whatever the supervising professor is most interested in, Keeling said.
“I think even if they don’t decide to be science majors, it gives them an appreciation for science that can be useful for them for the rest of their life, just in terms of understanding more about how science works,” Keeling said.
The students have flexible schedules with their internships, and are reimbursed for gas spent on commuting to Cal Poly from the Santa Maria area, Garcia said.
The application process included submitting transcripts, acquiring letters of recommendation, maintaining a 2.7 GPA in science courses and answering a few questions related to the students’ interest in research. The students were able to list some of their preferred research topics, Garcia said.
Both Tinoco and Garcia plan to apply to Cal Poly and other California schools in the fall and to eventually attend medical school.