Friday, August 5, 2011

High schoolers with eye on the prize

Several students from New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School spent eight weeks this summer doing painstaking laboratory research that will contribute data to studies conducted at Tulane Cancer Center.
“It is really opening my eyes to things in the medical field,” said Victoria Carter, 16, who has aspired to becoming a surgeon after seeing a TV advertisement several years ago for the Jarvik artificial heart.
Victoria worked alongside lab technicians under the guidance of Dr. Charles Bellows, M.D., associate professor of surgery at Tulane Medical School. Bellows taught Victoria how to stain colon cells, prepare the slides and then observe changes through a microscope.
She is one of 26 students selected for paid summer internships through New Orleans Outreach, a nonprofit that partners with schools to enhance public education. The internships allowed other high school students to work at Tulane Athletics, Audubon Zoo, Greater New Orleans Inc., Arc of Greater New Orleans, YA/YA, Louisiana Outdoors Outreach Program and Carrollton Technology Partners.
Internships build valuable professional skills and career-building resumes. The Science and Math High School aims to fund 100 internships next year.
Macie Robertson tracked the growth of breast cancer cells while Alexa Nicholson participated in a research study, examining whether dispersant released during the BP oil spill has contributed to incidences of lung cancer among clean-up workers. This was the fifth year the cancer center hosted summer interns.
“We would like to stimulate the interest of interns in biomedical sciences,” said He Wang, Ph.D.
Interns at Carrollton Technology revamped a Web site; at LOOP they led campers on field trips; did office accounting at ARC and decorated furniture for YA/YA.
            Before starting their assignments, students attended New Orleans Outreach Power Ties workshops to prepare them for their first professional experiences.
 The seminars covered workplace dos and don’ts, according to Tahera Darensburg-Crane, director of community opportunities at the high school. The workshop leader emphasized students should not use cell phones nor browse the Internet on the job.
“They’re teenagers,” said Dianne Weber, zoo grounds director. She told them the zoo uniform was not optional, even if clothing needed to be laundered daily. They should not wander from the worksite, no matter how tempted.
“You get fired if you don’t show up,” said Preet Samra, program manager for New Orleans Outreach, who coordinated the internships.
Their faces blanched when Weber said work began at 7 a.m. Visitors start arriving at 10 a.m., heading straight for Monkey Hill and the dinosaur exhibit.  “We like to get the big things out of the way,” Weber said.
Wearing pearl earrings and her hair in a chignon, Demaya Taylor had not expected to be outdoors. During the summer, she usually stays inside her house, watching television. 
Zoo interns assumed they would work with the animals, but instead did landscaping - trimming vegetation, weeding, raking and composting.
“I never knew the meaning of the word ‘horticulture’,” said Richard “Rico” Cotton, 16. None has a garden or yard at home.
“I didn’t know weeds needed to be pulled,” Rico laughed, noting he gained new respect for those who do that backbreaking labor.
They learned how to make compost from plant and tree clippings, shredded office paper, cardboard boxes, Starbucks coffee grounds, Tea Room scraps and zebra, ostrich and elephant manure. ZooDoo Gold, an all-organic planting soil, is sold to nurseries and individual gardeners.
“You are going to have me working with poo?” Rico reacted when first hearing his job description.
Several dumpsters of landfill debris are eliminated annually through composting, Weber explained.
Composting helps keep the zoo beautiful,” Rico reflected.
The interns arrived every day about the time the lion starts to roar. The elephants also take a morning stroll.
“We were weeding and they walked the elephant right by us. They let us touch him,” said Chanté Randolph.  “I’ve never been that close to an elephant before,” she said.
The interns became knowledgeable about specific animals and exhibits so they could direct visitors. They enjoyed taking breaks with staff members and feeling part of the team. The staff bid them farewell with a barbecue.
The Audubon zoo participated in the internship program for the first time, but plans to repeat in 2012. Weber said she always needs help in the summer.
“We wanted them to have a good time, as well as a good job experience,” Shaun Hebert, horticulture manager, explained.

Mary Rickard is a contributor to The Times-Picayune. She can be reached at
New Orleans high school students intern at labs, zoo | 8/4/11 12:22 PM Page 3 of 3
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