The Salk's Theodore Gildred Courtyard, where scientists normally discuss ideas and quietly eat their lunch, was alive with boisterous chatter recently when 137 students and teachers gathered to share their first-hand experiences in the labs.
Some students described looking at the fluorescent green heart of zebra fish beating under a microscope while Cecilia Areta of Mira Mesa High School said that dissecting lab mice was an opportunity she would never forget.
"I now like molecular biology so much more that I will probably study it in college," said student Cheryl Wang from Torrey Pines High School. "I loved the environment and experience at Salk. I will probably come back here one day."
The students visited Salk on March 1 for the 18th annual High School Science Day. The program, generously sponsored this year by longtime Salk Board member Charlie Robins, drew students from schools throughout San Diego County to learn more about biological research and explore the possibilities of a career in science.
Organized by Ellen Potter, a neurobiologist who also runs the Institute's educational outreach programs, along with science education specialist Dona Mapston and a small army of volunteers, High School Science Day serves as a "demystification" of science — giving students the opportunity to see the work that goes into achieving the milestones cited in their textbooks.
"These are definitely one-of-a kind experiences for San Diego students since Salk laboratories aren't open to the general public," Potter said.
After the welcome meeting, the students were separated into small groups and assigned two laboratories to visit out of the 24 that participated – some of which focus on research in genetics, stem cells, infectious disease and neurobiology. Each student was also provided the opportunity to conduct hands-on experiments and scientific demonstrations led by various Salk scientists and lab technicians.
"This was definitely worth getting up early for on a Saturday," said Deepa Khatri of Mission Hills High School.
The day included a presentation titled "Winning and Losing: Engineering the genome to enhance athletic performance" by Ron Evans, professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory at Salk, who provided a fascinating look at the Institute's cutting-edge research. The combination of thought-provoking data presented with a slide show liberally sprinkled with amusing graphics sparked a lively question-and-answer session in the young audience that only stopped because they ran out of time.
"The fact that a world renowned research center would open its doors to us is amazing," said Carrie Biggerstaff, a teacher at West Hills High School. "Most students will not realize how fully this day has impacted their life until many years from now."
Student Kyle Thompson of Vista High School agreed. "This made me really want to continue on my path towards a career in biology," he said. "I got to see first-hand what my future could be like."