SHINING STARS OF BRAVO SCHOOL CAST THEIR LIGHT ON THE FUTURE
Late last month, 200 high school biology students packed an Anaheim
hotel ballroom. All were honors students with a strong interest in
science; they had been bussed in from Los Angeles-area schools to
learn more about the burgeoning field of neuroscience.
During the symposium, experts from leading research universities such
as Yale and Rockefeller discussed topics ranging from learning and
memory to how sex hormones change the brain. Also on the program were
a group of students from USC’s Science, Technology and Research
(STAR) Program – run in conjunction with Francisco Bravo Medical
Magnet High School – who presented the results of their own recent
Originally started by the School of Pharmacy in 1985, the
increasingly popular program gives inquisitive high school juniors
and seniors a rare chance to pursue their passion for science by
joining a research team with University scientists.
The STAR students, who are the same age and come from more or less
the same backgrounds as the 200 teenagers they were addressing,
demonstrated to their peers that science is an area they too can
explore. Explains STAR’s director, Roberta Diaz Brinton of the
Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology: “Our STAR
students showed the audience the opportunities for discovery that
would be open to them if they joined a research team.”
Also in attendance were high school teachers. “We’re hoping that
once teachers from other areas see what is possible, they will
encourage nearby universities to offer the same program,” she said.
And not a moment too soon. The National Science Foundation estimates
that within the current decade and continuing into the next century
this country will face a staggering shortage of scientists and
If the STAR Program’s popularity is any indication, this brain drain
is not from lack of interest in science among teenagers, as some
media stories suggest, but rather from a lack of outlets in which
students can explore their interests.
The soaring popularity of the STAR Program among Bravo students
underscores this point. “When we started out in ’85, we had eight or
10 students. Now we have 50 – and a waiting list,” Brinton said.
Typical of STAR’s bright, young students are Judy Fernandez and
Claudia Gonzalez. While their fellow teenagers sit comfortably in
front of the TV, trying to figure out if Michael Jackson’s face
really is melting, these 17-year-olds are hunched over their
microscopes at the John Stauffer Pharmaceutical Sciences Center on
the Health Sciences Campus, hoping to find out how the
neurotransmitter vasopressin enhances memory. The two teens have
traded in many a leisurely afternoon for long hours at the
laboratory, but they don’t seem to mind.
“I’ve always been interested in science,” says Judy, who came here
from the Philippines when she was 10 and hopes to attend USC after
she graduates from high school in the spring of ’94. Claudia, whose
interests include neuroscience, folklorico dancing and adding to a
colorful shoe collection, has her sights set on Cornell.
The program teams students on a one- to-one basis with USC
researchers and is unique in the Los Angeles area: neither Caltech,
UC Irvine or that other university on the west side of town have one
like it. Students like Judy and Claudia spend at least four
afternoons a week conducting research in the lab. To date,
neuroscience and cancer seem to be the most popular research areas
among STAR students; with the Center for Craniofacial Biology in the
School of Dentistry also a popular choice.
Other STAR pupils, such as Linda Ho and Francisco Melero, have worked
on hypertension studies; while still others have reported to the
Doheny Eye Institute. Two students even joined a forensic psychology
Tapping raw scientific talent will not only give this country the
technological edge it needs to compete in the future, it also gives
teenagers with the odds stacked against them a fighting chance. “All
of our STAR students are from working-class families,” says Brinton.
Many of them come from backgrounds of Dickensian dimensions. “One of
my former students was a survivor of the boat people of Vietnam.
Twice she was on a boat that sank, and she spent five years of her
life in refugee camps,” Brinton said. “We have a student this year
who survived the Killing Fields in Kampuchea. These kids lived
through hell before they reached the age of 10.”
Alex Monreal grew up in a fatherless home on Wabash Street where the
sound of gunfire could be heard almost every night. “He did an
astounding job at the science competition and also won an award from
the Neurological Association,” says Brinton. Alex now has a full
scholarship to Reed College.
Not surprisingly, the students and researchers in the STAR program
develop a strong mentor relationship. “Most parents of STAR students
have to work outside the home or, if there are two parents at home,
both work outside to make ends meet,” says Brinton. “You become part
of an extended family, and they keep coming back to you because you
are their friend and trusted advisor.
“The STAR program, through a combination of challenging students to
excel in science and by developing a long-term mentor relationship,
influences the students’ lives tremendously.”
[Photo:] Roberta Diaz Brinton with Judy Fernandez (left) and Claudia
Gonzalez: “When we started this program, we had eight or 10 students.
Now we have 50 – and a waiting list!”