For more than 30 years, the Salk Institute’s Heithoff-Brody High School Summer Scholars program has provided hands-on laboratory experiences for local high school students interested in exploring careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Being in a lab every day and being surrounded by scientists gets you in the mindset of a scientist,” says Evelyn Parra, a 2022 program participant and student at Sage Creek High School in San Diego.
Parra’s summer project was focused on understanding how plants respond to our changing climate.
“We saw how plants grow in four different conditions—two dark and two light—and we were able to compare them,” says Parra, who worked in the lab of Professor Joanne Chory, director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory and founding director of the Harnessing Plants Initiative at Salk.
Parra was one of 12 applicants selected out of 250 candidates to participate in the eight-week program, which offers paid positions for talented high school students to assist Salk scientists with projects. The program is part of Salk’s Education Outreach department.
“STEM opportunities are so lucrative for students. They help us move the next generation forward,” says Monika Wert-Parkinson, who oversees the Heithoff-Brody High School Summer Scholars program as director of public programs at Salk.
Summer Scholars first attend a one-week boot camp through Salk’s partnership with the Biocom Institute’s Life Science Young Leaders program, ensuring that students are trained on basic equipment and laboratory skills. Then they spend seven weeks in a lab, where they are involved with a full-time research project—learning how to formulate and test hypotheses, prepare experiments, and draw conclusions. They also learn to maintain laboratory notebooks and take part in regular lab meetings and group discussions. Students end the program by presenting their work to the Salk community.
Josh Sohmer was introduced to Salk when he participated in Education Outreach student programs and completed internships in 2013 and 2014. He later became a research assistant in Salk’s stem cell core facility and is now a first-year medical student focused on regenerative medicine.
“The summer internships and student opportunities Salk provides truly solidified my interest in science and gave me the necessary tools to build a career,” Sohmer says. “These programs sparked my interest in stem cells and led me to pursue it professionally and apply it to my future medical practice. I am still involved in the summer student programs now as a mentor, providing guidance on the student presentations.”
The Institute’s Education Outreach programs, including Heithoff-Brody High School Summer Scholars, continue founder Jonas Salk’s vision for the Institute.
“Jonas Salk believed it is our responsibility to be good ancestors. That is really what the program is about—to train the next generation of scientists,” says Wert-Parkinson.