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Science internships attract students to research careers

WESLACO, TXThe United States, respected as a world leader in scientific research, has a shortage of trained scientists. The labor gap is being filled by foreign guest workers, but recent regulations limiting foreign researchers' ability to work in the U. S. have created a need for a new pool of domestic scientists.

According to Eliezer Louzada and his colleagues at Texas A&M UniversityKingsville, the University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB), and the University of Texas Pan-American (UTPA), Hispanic Americans and other minority groups are an untapped resource of talent who could fill the labor gap if given access to funds for education and training. "By examining the current situation of the Hispanic community as it relates to education, participation in science careers, social economic factors, and the lack of science role models, we concluded that Hispanics would greatly benefit from hands-on internships at all grade levels", observed Louzada.

A model internship program was created at Texas A&M UniversityKingsville Citrus Center (TAMUKCC), an off-campus research facility located 110 miles from the main campus and 10 miles from the Mexican border in an area where the population is more than 90% Hispanic. The driving distance from the main campus to the research facility created a distinct barrier to recruiting graduate students.

To address the access problem, local universities collaborated to create an undergraduate research program designed to channel undergraduate students to graduate school at TAMUKCC. The study, published in the American Society for Horticultural Science journal HortTechnology, discusses the results obtained during 6 years of the undergraduate internship program.

The internship project was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grants Program (USDA-HSI) in 2000 and initiated in Summer 2001. Eighteen undergraduate tudents from UTB and 33 from UTPA participated in the project through June 2007. Most of the students were juniors and seniors.

Researchers observed that, during the first 2 weeks of the internship, most of the students were hesitant to participate or to touch instrumentation in the laboratory. After completing the training the students developed the confidence to carry out a semi-independent project involving the isolation and characterization of a known gene.

None of the students had science as a career choice before the internship; after participating, however, many decided to pursue careers in science. To date, more than 60 students have been provided with internships and 20 students have entered graduate schools, most in molecular biology-related fields, including 10 at the doctoral level in molecular environmental science. Notably, most were first-generation college students.

According to Louzada; "Faculty observed that undergraduate research produced a potential group of excellent, well-trained undergraduate students that in many cases are at a technical level equal to advanced Masters degree students and who are able to start their doctoral program after finishing their Bachelors. The time spent training the undergraduate student is beneficial to faculty and students." He concluded; "Undergraduate research is an efficient method to attract undergraduate students to science, and many universities are taking advantage of this; however, much still needs to be done to fully explore its potential".

The researchers are attempting to obtain additional funding to expand the program to include other disciplines in addition to molecular biology.


Contact: Michael W. Neff
American Society for Horticultural Science

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