Archives For College First

Erica Rocha is a bright young woman who is going places in the career field of ecological research. Her participation in the Garden’s Science Career Continuum when she was a Chicago Public School student was an important step on her journey toward her future career as a scientist.

The Science Career Continuum is composed of three programs: Science First for high school freshmen and sophomores, College First for high school juniors and seniors, and the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) for college students. Erica participated in College First in 2012 and 2013 and came back to the Garden for the REU program during the summer 2015. She is currently a junior at Dominican University, studying environmental science.

PHOTO: Erica Rocha and Mereida Fluckes sort specimens in a laboratory.

As a college intern in the Garden’s REU program, Erica worked in the genetics lab and mentored high school student Mereida Fluckes.

Upon our recommendation, this summer Erica made a courageous decision to apply for the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). Erica had never traveled out of the midwestern United States before.

The Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP) is a two-year program for college students to explore environmental conservation through field research in northern California. The program includes leadership and professional training. Twenty students are selected to participate in a summer intensive, field-based course focused on collaborative research and diversity in the field of conservation science. 

We were pleased, but not surprised, when we learned that Erica was selected to participate in this program. Her experiences in the Science Career Continuum put her at an advantage, and provided an excellent foundation for this kind of experience. Erica had a great summer and wrote to tell the program manager, Amaris Alanis-Ribeiro, about it. It is encouraging to hear that all of the time and effort we devote to students in our program, as well as continuing to stay in touch and advise to them after they leave us, is paying off!


An email from Erica
October 6, 2016

Hi, Amaris!

My apologies for getting back to you so late but I really wanted to take the time to write about my DDCSP experience (there is so much to tell!!). 

Starting from the moment I got off of the plane and on the way over to the UCSC campus, I was completely stunned by the differences in landscape, weather, and topography of the Santa Cruz and San Jose area. I’ve never really traveled out of state much, so being able to experience a whole new environment and ecosystem that isn’t close to home was so exciting and thrilling to me.

That first day meeting everyone was overwhelming and I had no idea how close I would get to all of the scholars over the course of the summer. It was such a welcoming and comforting environment to be around them and the instructors because they share the same passion for conservation, social justice, and share similar stories as minorities and first generation students. Needless to say I’m grateful to have met all of them.

PHOTO: students with flashlights hunched over as they walk through a cave with a low ceiling.

We explored the caves in Santa Cruz.

The very first night, Eric, one of the scholars who attends UCSC, took us to explore the cave on campus. I saw the UCSC mascot there (a banana slug!). It was a great start to the program. We spent the rest of that week learning more about the different ecosystems in Northern California. This included going to Año Nuevo State Park, Moss Landing State Beach, the Redwood forests (with HUGE trees!), and a couple other places. I really enjoyed learning outside and placing all the textbooks’ concepts from back home into the field in California. 

PHOTO: Erica and her fellow students, loaded with backpacks, are hiking up a trail.

I took a selfie while we were hiking to our campsite.

After the first week on campus we headed to Big Creek Reserve in Big Sur for the ultimate camping trip. I’ve never seen such a pristine and pure environment in my life! There was hardly any human impact on the reserve—it is a great example of conservation and preservation of the land. And the water was like no other I have tasted!

Another great thing was that we basically had the whole reserve to ourselves. Only the land managers and stewards were there.

To top it off we placed our tents in the heart of the redwood forest and slept with the sound of the calming waters from Big Creek every night. I never thought camping could be so stress-free. Since our tents and kitchen were far from where the showers were, the creek was our go-to after a long day at the field. It was so refreshing and cold (which was great after being under the sun for hours).

PHOTO: the scholars in the program are sitting around a campfire at night.

Camping was great!

Our week in Big Sur was my absolute favorite. That is where we were introduced to the basics of research and started developing our own projects. This is where my interest in invasive ecology grew. One of the land stewards there, Feynner, is someone I really enjoyed meeting. He knows the reserve and the forest like the back of his hand. He was a great resource when coming up with research project ideas. He even invited me to come back if I wanted to do future research there.

The next reserve, Sagehen in Berkeley, was probably everyone’s least favorite spot. We were really crowded along with other students studying there. But it was a good in terms of my research there. I was able to conduct a social science project concerning the loggers working on the sustainable forest-thinning project in the reserve. It was interesting to interview the workers doing the labor behind such an elaborate conservation project directly. It gave me a new insight into research from the social science perspective. 

PHOTO: rocky mountains with scattered evergreen trees.

The White Mountains in Northern California are stunning.

Crooked Creek Research Station in the White Mountains was a close second to my favorite reserve. As at Big Creek, we were isolated 10,000 feet away from “civilization” as we liked to say. With limited internet, phone signal, and interacting with the same group of scholars, it allowed us to truly focus on our research.

This is the place where we first attempted to write a formal research paper from a collective project. It was an interesting process to narrow all the possible research topics according to everyone’s interest into one single connected project. This is also where our statistical knowledge was very useful for analyzing the enormous amount of detailed data that we took. It was definitely one of the moments that encouraged me to continue my studies in ecology and research.

Getting back closer to Santa Cruz, our last reserve was Swanton Ranch, where I got to collect data alongside cattle, herons, lizards, and a beautiful coastal view. I even got to substitute for a scholar in their project by helping guide a canoe in an estuary! Our final project here was the one we would present at the symposium in the Marine Lab on the UCSC campus. Having done the REU symposium at the Garden, I felt prepared and excited.

PHOTO: Students are sitting on the grass in a wooded area, listening to a leader.

We discussed diversifying the field of conservation.

Once we were back on campus after spending weeks at research stations, we continued our discussions and workshops on diversifying the field of conservation. We had a lot of great workshop leaders who really encouraged me to fight for a more just and inclusive workforce, not only in conservation but in my everyday life. 

All in all, I came back with a sense of purpose to be more involved in social justice for minorities and with a renewed excitement for ecology and conservation. Being surrounded by such intelligent, engaged, involved, and passionate scholars and instructors, I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have been chosen for this internship. I am so excited for next summer’s internship with DDCSP. I’m so grateful that you told me about this program and recommended me, because without your support I wouldn’t be where I am today. THANK YOU! 

Warmly, 
Erica Rocha


PHOTO: Erica Rocha Erica Rocha is a former Science Career Continuum participant, current Dominican University student, and future leader in environmental science and social justice. She signed up for—and presented her summer research at—the Louis Stokes Midwest Center of Excellence (LSMCE) Conference this past October.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

No Day at the Beach: Summer Meant Research for REU Participants

Field research + skilled mentorship = next generation of plant scientists

Amy Spungen —  September 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

On a recent day in Chicago, with the sun beating down and temperatures climbing into the 90s, many college students idling through their last week at home headed for the beach. Lounging about was not on the agenda for the undergraduates gathered at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, on August 14, however. Instead, they stepped into the cool interior of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center to present their summer research findings.

Thirty college students were at the end of their ten-week Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, and 22 of them were scheduled to talk about it. Far removed from beach banter, they spoke the language of population genetics, plant diversity, arthropods and fungal pathogens, and the floral preference of bees, among many other topics.

Funded primarily through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, with additional funding from Northwestern University and others, the REU program is held each summer, and hundreds of hopeful candidates from colleges and universities throughout the United States apply to the program. Based at the Chicago Botanic Garden for the past ten years, the program enables a motivated group of undergraduates to explore a diverse array of topics related to plant biology and conservation. NSF-funded participants receive a stipend of $5,000, plus an additional subsistence and travel allowance.

Though the stipend is much appreciated, the main benefit of the REU program is professional: these young scientists perform detailed research out in the field and within sophisticated laboratories, under the skilled mentorship of senior scientists and doctoral and master’s students. At the Garden, participants have access to the nine laboratories of the Plant Science Center. Some REU participants use these labs while they serve as research mentors for teens participating in the Garden’s College First program. (College First brings talented Chicago Public Schools students who are African American or Latino—both underrepresented demographics in the professional science field—to the Garden in summer for a range of learning opportunities that introduce them to professional and academic options.)

PHOTO: Jannice Newson.

Jannice Newson

“The REU program was really interesting—I learned so much,” said Jannice Newson, now a sophomore majoring in environmental science at the University of Missouri. She stood before her poster in the Plant Science Center before presentations began. When prompted, Newson, who evaluated 242 species of shoreline plants over the summer, described a typical day in the program; by the time she patiently finished laying out the daily process, the magnitude of her accomplishment was clear.

“From a scientific perspective, I’m so proud of how Jannice developed her research skills over the course of the summer,” said her mentor, Bob Kirschner, director of restoration ecology and Woman’s Board Curator of Aquatics at the Garden. “Her commitment to the environment—and her now-refined desire to prepare for a career in the applied aquatic sciences—bring a huge smile to my face!“

The Science Career Continuum and near-peer mentoring

As hard as the work was, the experience invigorated Newson. “I would love to come back and do more of this work,” she said. “It was such a great group of people!” She previously participated in  College First and is an example of how students can move along the Garden’s Science Career Continuum. The continuum allows the Garden to connect its own programs for middle- and high-school students (Science First and College First, respectively) with those offering internships and mentoring for college and graduate students.

Jazmine Hernandez, now a sophomore majoring in health sciences at DePaul University, was both a Science First and College First participant. She hopes to go beyond the walls of the Plant Science Center and explain her population genetics research at a conference this fall.

PHOTO: Jazmine Hernandez.

Jazmine Hernandez

“I am so grateful to have been accepted into the REU program,” she said. “I heard about it through the Garden’s peer mentoring program, and then my College First advisor e-mailed me to suggest I apply.” She smiled and threw her arms wide. “Science First prepared me for high school; College First prepared me for college; REU is preparing me for life!”

“The near-peer mentoring that the REU program makes possible is incredibly important,” said Anya Maziak, the Garden’s director of foundation and government relations, who helps secure funding for the continuum and was reviewing the posters. “High-school students are mentored by undergraduate students who are mentored by graduate students and so on, offering all participants relatable models who encourage and support them as they pursue plant science careers.”

Hernandez noted that her REU mentor, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D.—a Garden conservation scientist and manager of both the molecular ecology lab and the REU program—covered much more than research throughout the summer, such as ethics, publishing papers, and preparing a resumé. “It’s just a great experience,” she said. “When I returned to the Garden for the REU program, all I could think was, I am home! I love it here.” Hernandez, whose poster was titled “Population Genetics during a Manrove Range Expansion,” plans to become a plant pathologist.

Winners among winners

A team of three Garden experts—Andrew Bunting, assistant director and director of plant collections; Greg Mueller, Ph.D., Negaunee Foundation Vice President of Science; and Eileen Prendergast, director of education—evaluated the posters and selected several for special honors. Taran Lichtenberger’s poster, “Functional trait diversity in prairie plant species,” was deemed Best Poster. Best Presentation went to Lisa Cheung, who elaborated on her poster, “Molecular markers distinguish hybridization patterns in Castilleja.” Evan Levy, whose poster was titled “Floral preference of bees in a Montane Meadow in Flagstaff, Arizona,” won the title of Best Overall.

Official honors aside, it was clear through the detailed research posters, the enthusiastic and articulate presenters, and the beaming faces of family, friends, and mentors that every REU participant was a winner.

“As a first-time judge, I was extremely impressed with the posters,” said Prendergast. “Every one of the students and mentors should be really proud of their work this summer.” (See summaries of each poster here.) Prendergast raises a good point in citing the mentors as well as their students, because it takes time, energy, and patience to work with even the most highly motivated and intelligent students—and there are no slackers in the REU program. “Mentoring REU students does take some time out of Garden scientists’ rather hectic summer schedules,” said Kirschner, “but the rewards to both the Garden and the student are just incredible.”

“Days like this remind me of why I’m here,” said Dr. Fant, who has managed the REU program for the past four years. He nodded toward the clusters of presenters and excited visitors. “It can be challenging to manage the program, but every year, seeing what these students have accomplished reassures me that among the next generation of scientists, there are many talented enough to take our place.”

The number of REU applicants rises yearly, and Fant expects the number accepted into the program to increase to as many as 40. (That’s about as much as the Plant Science Center and staff can accommodate.)

It’s not hard to see the attraction. As Dr. Mueller said, “The REU program provides a potentially life-changing experience by giving these undergraduate students research that can help them figure out what they can do with the rest of their lives. They work hard, and they have a good time.”

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Twenty years ago, I was running school field trip programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden when then-education manager Alan Rossman received a grant to start a brand new program called “College First.” This program would use the Garden site and staff to introduce 12 students from three Chicago Public Schools to careers in the green industry. He hired retired teacher Gwen Yvonne Greenwood to coordinate the program and enlist staff from all over the Garden to mentor and teach these young people.

PHOTO: Six high school students are posing in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden, wearing dark green uniform College First T-shirts

These six students from 2003 are all college grads with jobs now.

At the time, there weren’t many programs like College First anywhere in the country. College First was even unique among the other museum teen program start-ups, in that our goals were not merely to make the institution more relevant to this age group, but also to provide a springboard to meaningful careers in science-related fields. Who knew that 20 years later, with some changes and improvements along the way, this small program would evolve and grow into the Science Career Continuum we have today?

We now bring 60 students (like Mely Guzman, whom I blogged about earlier this year) from all over Chicago to the Garden every summer and expose them to environmental and conservation sciences, with the hope that a few of them will be inspired to pursue a career in this field, and maybe go on to do something important for our planet. To date, College First has served more than 500 students from 116 schools. The majority of them have attended college and have entered—or are entering—productive careers. Many of them have pursued science-related careers as a direct result of their experiences at the Garden.

PHOTO: At the reception of the College First 20-year reunion.

Program manager, Amaris Alanis Ribeiro (standing on the right) reminds a group of former students to visit Wonderland Express after they are finished eating.

We celebrated the success of College First on December 14, with a reunion party at the Garden, including a visit to Wonderland Express, for all past students, instructors, mentors, donors, and their families. More than 200 people attended the event. In between the many reunion hugs, congratulations, and words of encouragement for current students, we gave all program participants an opportunity to reflect on their experiences by telling us their stories on video, writing comments on a talk-back wall, and tweeting about the event while a live Twitter feed displayed the comments.

PHOTO: College First participants shared their thoughts and feelings on a mural outside the auditorium.

College First participants shared their thoughts and feelings on the comment wall outside the auditorium.

A former program coordinator, William Moss, is now a gardening guru and media celebrity. (Even our instructors have moved on to great things in their careers!) William presided as master of ceremonies during a presentation to recognize all the people who have made this program possible. We honored staff mentors, Louise Egerton-Warburton, Jeremie Fant, and Tom Soulsby as outstanding mentors. The College First 20th Anniversary event was made possible by the generous support of Joel Friedman of the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund. Awards were presented to Annette Kleinman and family of the Sheridan Foundation, the W.P. & H.B. White Foundation, and the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation for their generous financial support over the years.

PHOTO: William Moss at the podium.

William Moss—television celebrity, author, gardener, and all-around good guy—helped us to honor all the people who have made this program successful.

For me, this was a very rewarding event. It was such a pleasure to see so many past and present students coming together and sharing in the success of this program, especially those who are now adults with spouses and children of their own. This group represents our scientific future.

PHOTO: Group photo of past College First participants.

A total of 57 past and present College First participants attended the celebration and posed for a picture. Wow!

I wish each and every one of these smart and talented young people a happy new year and all the best in their bright futures!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Meet Melyssa Guzman. She is one of 20 College First students who spent eight weeks learning about environmental science and doing a research project at the Chicago Botanic Garden. 

2014 PHOTO: College First student Mely G.

College First student Mely G. would like people to plant butterfly gardens in their yards.

Mely, as she likes to be called, is a junior in the Chicago Public Schools district. She’s kind of a “girlie” young woman who wears a lot of pink, and likes flowery, feminine things. Mely also loves science. Each student had a staff mentor; I was Mely’s. Her project was teaching the public about butterfly-attracting flowers.

Although drop-in programs and exhibitions may be considered more “education” than “science,” understanding how people learn is an area of social science research that can challenge a smart student like Mely. This summer, Mely learned that museums and public gardens often test exhibitions and learning activities, using methods similar to those practiced by conservation scientists, to see how visitors will respond.

Mely began by researching butterflies and the flowers they prefer. Then she decided to set up a display at the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, where she would teach visitors what flowers to grow in their yards to attract butterflies. The display would have different kinds of flowers—real flowers and pictures—and she would stand and talk with people who were interested.

PHOTO: Mely G. taking notes.

After each group of visitors, Mely recorded notes about how long they stayed at her table, and how interested they seemed.

As kids today would say, her first try was an “epic fail.” Most visitors looked at her display with curiosity, but they seemed perplexed and did not stop to learn more. The display was lovely, with fresh flowers and pictures of native butterflies, but it lacked a clear focus. It needed something else to draw visitors in. The display board kept blowing over, which was another big problem.

PHOTO: Mely G. prepares a display.

Back to the drawing board: Mely made a new display— one that would stand up better and entice visitors with a title that asks: “What Is a Butterfly Flower?”

Mely brought the exhibit inside and modified the whole thing. Instead of using a folding display board, she mounted a poster board on a cardboard box so it would be more stable when taped to the table. She added a title, “What Is a Butterfly Flower?” as well as some facts about butterfly flowers. Then she tested the display again. After each group of visitors, she recorded the time they spent at her table, and gave them a score of 1 to 4 to rate how interested they were, the kinds of questions they asked, and things they talked about while looking at the display.

Museum exhibit developers call this process “rapid prototyping.” Inexpensive mock-ups of exhibits are tested to ensure they work—that visitors enjoy them and get the intended messages—before the museum invests a lot of money on a permanent display.

PHOTO: 2014 College First student Mely G. gives a demonstration.

A mother and daughter listen as Mely explains what colors, scents, and shapes attract butterflies to a flower.

Mely made a few more minor changes to her display. Then she tested a hypothesis. She observed that adults with children seemed more distracted than those without children; that they did not seem to talk to her as much as the childless groups. She hypothesized that adults without children would spend more time, ask more questions, and talk more about butterflies than mixed-generation groups. She used the data she gathered during prototyping the display, analyzing who stopped by her table, how long they spent, and how engaged they were.

Surprisingly, she discovered that families with children actually spent a little more time on average than adults alone. She thought this may be true because adults who brought children to her display spent their time explaining things to them instead of talking to her. In other words, the adults were not distracted, but were directing attention on their children to help them also learn from the display.

Mely does not fully realize that she has stumbled upon a very significant principle of learning: that learning is social. Educational research has shown that interaction between family members has a positive influence on learning in museums and in other environments. I’m very proud of Melyssa’s accomplishment this summer, and I look forward to seeing her expand her research next summer—because we both learned something!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On any given day, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s science laboratories are bustling with activity. Some of the researchers are extracting DNA from leaves, analyzing soil samples, discussing how to restore degraded dunes—and talking about where they’re going to college. The young researchers are interns in the Garden’s College First program, studying field ecology and conservation science, and working side by side with scientists, horticulturists, and educators.

PHOTO: Orange-shirted middle schoolers examine palm trees and take data in the greenhouse.

Science First participants gather data in the Greenhouse.

PHOTO: Two high school girls wearing blue "College First" tshirts and latex gloves examine samples in the lab.

Two College First participants work on analyzing samples in the Garden’s plant science labs.

The Science Career Continuum consists of five programs:

  • Science First, a four-week enrichment program for students in grades 8 through 10.
  • College First, an eight-week summer internship for high school juniors and seniors with monthly meetings during the school year.
  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), a ten-week summer research-based science internship supervised by a Garden scientist and funded through a National Science Foundation grant. In 2014, three College First graduates will participate.
  • Conservation and Land Management (CLM) internship, offered through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and held in 13 western states.
  • Graduate programs in plant biology and conservation, offered jointly with Northwestern University for master’s degree and doctoral students.

The program is part of the Science Career Continuum, which is aimed at training the next generation of dedicated land stewards and conservation scientists. The Continuum engages Chicago Public Schools students from diverse backgrounds in meaningful scientific research and mentoring programs from middle school through college and beyond. “Each level of the Continuum challenges students to improve their science skills, building on what was learned at the previous level and preparing them for the next,” said Kathy Johnson, director of teacher and student programs.

College First is a paid eight-week summer internship for up to 20 qualified students. Isobel Araujo, a senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago, attended the College First program in 2011 and 2012. As part of the program, she did research on orchids and learned how to estimate budgets to fix hypothetical ecological problems. “It was definitely challenging, but it was awesome,” said Araujo, who plans to major in environmental studies.

During the school year, College First students also attend monthly meetings that help them select colleges, complete applications, and find financial aid to continue their education. More than 94 percent of College First graduates attend two- or four-year colleges, and many are the first in their family to attend college. Three students, including Robert Harris III, received full scholarships to universities beginning in fall 2013.

Harris is a freshman at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. As a junior and senior at Lane Tech High School in Chicago, he made a three-hour daily round-trip commute to the Garden for the College First program. During his internship, he learned to extract plant DNA and study genetic markers in the Artocarpus genus, which includes breadfruit and jackfruit. Harris said the program was a great experience. “You get out of the city and experience nature close up,” he said. “The Garden itself is one big laboratory, and it was a lot more hands-on than in high school.”

PHOTO: An intern carries a quiver full of marking flags, and takes notes on her clipboard.

Science First and College First programs lead into other graduate and postgraduate programs. Visit chicagobotanic.org/research/training to find information on these programs.

PHOTO: A group of about 50 people pose at the end of the Serpentine Bridge.

Conservation and Land Management (CLM) postgraduate interns for 2013 pose for a group photo at the Garden. Visit clminternship.org to find out more about this program.

Because of funding restrictions, enrollment for the Continuum programs are limited to students from Chicago Public Schools. For more information, visit chicagobotanic.org/ctl/teacher_students or call (847) 835-6871.


This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the spring 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org