STEM Shadow Day gives diverse students an inside look at Sanford Burnham Prebys

| Written by Miles Martin
Michael Jackson, Ph.D., explaining the Institute's drug discovery research at the Prebys Center

As part of ongoing efforts to increase the diversity of the Institute’s trainees, Sanford Burnham Prebys’ DEI Education & Training Committee hosted 36 high school and college students from historically underrepresented backgrounds for a day of lab tours and workshops. The event was sponsored by the San Diego MESA alliance, and more than 20 faculty, staff and current trainees came together to help make the event possible. 

“It’s critical for all students to have opportunities to learn more about scientific research at an early phase in their academic career,” says Paula Checchi, Ph.D., an administrator in the Institute’s Office of Education, Training and International Students and a leader of our Education & Training Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. “Diversity in the lab contributes so much, both to the trainees' success and to the overall progress of biomedical research. If we’re going to create a more diverse research community, we need to work from the ground up and support young scholars from all backgrounds every step of the way.”

The day began with an introduction by Hudson Freeze, Ph.D. and a keynote address from Alessandra Sacco, Ph.D., who spoke to the challenges she’s faced as an Italian American and as a woman in science. 

“My parents When I was younger, some of my relatives asked me why I even wanted to study this because the role of women in science was very different then,” Sacco said. “When I started, I was the only woman in the lab, and that made it difficult to integrate. I didn’t think I’d last a week, but day by day you learn to overcome those challenges in front of you, and it gets a little easier, and it becomes an exciting opportunity to grow.”

She also spoke to the importance of diversity in STEM.

“Diversity is a huge resource, especially in scientific research,” Sacco said. “If you’re asking questions nobody has the answer to, and everybody in the room is from the same background with the same mindset, you’re less likely to less likely to find creative answers. Diversity enriches the scientific discussion, and we’re all part of the same research community.”

After the opening comments, high school students attended workshops on networking skills and mentorship. Meanwhile, college students divided into groups and went on guided tours of labs across campus, where they saw firsthand how Sanford Burnham Prebys researchers are solving pressing problems in medicine.

“It’s so exciting that researchers like Dr. Haricharan are looking at breast cancer in Black and brown women and really getting down to the fundamental biology, not just focusing on socioeconomic factors,” says Shadow Day participant Serina Cuza, referring to recent research from the lab of Svasti Haricharan, Ph.D. “I know there could be pushback, but that’s how you know the research is potentially a breakthrough.”

The event ended with a networking lunch followed by a poster session, featuring work by students in the Sanford Burnham Prebys Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and alumni of this summer’s SPARK internship program.

“I really enjoyed all the people that I met today,” said Shadow Day participant Yaritza Rubio. “I like that there are so many people from so many different parts of the world here.” 

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