On weekdays from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 17-year-old chemistry whiz Itzel Gonzalez (pictured above) is tied up in the lab conducting time-sensitive research assignments.
Far from summer school, however, the incoming Richmond High senior has been performing actual, real-life research for a multi-national energy corporation.
As part of the nine-week-long Project SEED internship program for budding young chemists, the teenager heads over to the Richmond Technology Center (located along Castro Street and Highway 580 and just up the street from the Richmond Refinery) on a daily basis, puts on her blue lab coat, protective eyeglasses and latex gloves, and then conducts the necessary work of evaluating the oxidation of lubricants and the development of new oxidation test methods. She not only gets paid for her work, but also valuable lab experience as she builds upon her dream of a career in cancer research.
“My grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said when asked what inspired her to dive into the sciences at such a young age.
Gonzalez is one of more than 8,500 high school students across the country who have benefited from Project SEED over more than four decades. The internship program by the American Chemical Society targets students in economically disadvantaged areas. To be eligible, students must have completed high school chemistry and received a recommendation from their chemistry teacher. They are then placed in professional labs during the summer to perform meaningful scientific research under the guidance of an experienced mentor.
Along with Chevron, which accepted 10 interns locally this summer and additionally provided funding for intern stipends, other participating students were offered internships by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local universities, and other local labs. Some interns who pledge to pursue a chemistry major can receive a $5,000 college scholarship from the American Chemical Society.
Chevron lab technicians raved about the work of their students, including Gonzalez, calling them smart and eager to learn.
“We really get very good students and get very good help from them,” said Kenneth Nelson, who administers the program at Chevron, which has supported SEED for more than three decades.
Nelson said the Chevron lab especially aims to accept West Contra Costa Unified (WCCUSD) students who might not otherwise have access to mentors or opportunities in the sciences. In fact, the Chevron lab last year ramped up its number of mentors to 10 — the most of any California site — partly to offset the loss of mentors at an Albany lab and to provide more opportunities to district students.
Jessica Siu, a Project SEED alum from 2006, ended up getting a full-time job as a blend-sciences technician with Chevron and now mentors interns. She said she knew early on she had a talent for science but said the program helped narrow down her career choices.
“I was good at it,” she said, “And my resume stood out because I was a SEED student.”
The main point is that the program is “very immersive,” said Javier Escalante (pictured above with Gonzalez), an 18-year-old Richmond High graduate headed to San Francisco State University in the fall.
“Just mixing chemicals is very interesting, although sometimes it can be tedious,” Escalante said. “It’s really a great experience.”
Esclanate also enjoys the short commute: He said he lives but two miles from the Chevron labs.