Laleh Coté
Orientation for undergraduate research interns at Berkeley Lab.

GradNews is pleased to publish the submission of another winner of our contest that invited graduate students to submit essays describing their summer activities. 

This summer I did the same thing I’ve done almost every summer for the past nine years: I spent my time with a large group of undergraduate research interns at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), as they worked on real-world research projects and explored careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. My role has dramatically changed over time, but I’ve come to view Berkeley Lab as my home away from home. I’ll explain.

After high school, it took me a little while to figure out what I wanted to do with the next chapter of my life. I love to sing, and I love being around people. So, I joined a band, wrote songs, went on tour, and worked in restaurants, coffee shops, and record stores. I connected with many people from diverse backgrounds, but I found myself wanting to do something different. Really different. I can remember enviously watching students poring over textbooks with purpose, while I burned my fingers with hot water from the espresso machine at work. I knew that going to school was one way to get back on track, and I wanted to help others do the same. I felt like an outsider, but I fought to get back in.

Like so many undergraduates I’ve met over the past few years, I majored in biology because of my general interest in human health. This decision dramatically altered the course of my life, leading me to conduct research at multiple institutions and (joyfully) immersing myself in the world of science.

As an intern, I first set foot at Berkeley Lab in 2007, seven years after graduating from high school. I had green hair when I applied but dyed it black before orientation, not knowing what to expect. The researchers I worked with in Dr. Gary Andersen‘s group welcomed me, and to this day they are some of my strongest supporters. Under Gary’s supervision, I participated in three rigorous summer research internships, and worked in his lab as much as he’d let me. He pushed me to present my work, design original research, and co-author a paper that was published in Environmental Science & Technology, several months before I received my B.A. in biology from San Francisco State University.

Afterward, I worked for another very supportive mentor, Dr. Qizhi Tang, at the UCSF Medical Center. She talked to me about how to choose a career that matches your personality, and shared some of her personal experiences making this decision. At this point I realized I had better try to combine my two main passions: science and people. So, during my final semesters as an undergraduate, I applied for the job I still hold, which changed my status from ‘student researcher’ to ’employee.’

84 undergraduate and faculty interns at Berkeley Lab
Orientation for 84 undergraduate and faculty interns at Berkeley Lab.

My current job as the Undergraduate Internship Coordinator at Berkeley Lab allows me the opportunity to support the very same internship programs that introduced me to research as an undergraduate. I really love the work I do, and it is an honor to serve my community by supporting these educational programs. I am lucky to receive plenty of professional mentoring from my managers, Dr. Susan Brady Wells and Colette Flood.

Sometimes I experience déjà vu, working with interns and simultaneously remembering what it was like to be one. For example, every summer we hold group meetings of interns in a particular auditorium — the same place where I attended group meetings as an intern, way back in 2007. It’s also where a guest speaker first made me understand that I might be a good candidate for graduate school in the future. That guest speaker was Dr. Colette Patt, the Director of the Mathematical & Physical Sciences Diversity at UC Berkeley. I try to remember to thank her often.

This job has helped me develop a scientific literacy beyond my education in biology. Between 2011 and 2016, I have worked with about 400 individual interns as they carried out research projects in chemistry, life sciences, math, physics, computational research, supercomputing, environmental science, information technology, facilities, genomics, engineering, and materials sciences. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is to facilitate workshops in which the interns prepare an “elevator pitch” for a general audience, breaking down their complex ideas into non-technical concept-driven statements. They will use this elevator pitch in a culminating poster session at Berkeley Lab, where they explain their research projects to researchers, operations staff, and guests.

My long-term career goal is to become a leader in science education, and to build expertise in program development, with a focus on supporting underrepresented groups in STEM fields. I want US scientists to look like the diverse population they serve. I’m really looking forward to joining the Graduate Group in Science & Mathematics Education (SESAME) program in the Fall 2016 semester. My adviser, Dr. Anne Baranger, has a special interest in undergraduate chemical education, and I look forward to designing research projects under her guidance in the future.

I believe that an education at UC Berkeley will give me the resources I need to contribute to changing the way science looks. I want to be the kind of mentor that mine have been for me. I don’t want other people to feel like outsiders. I want to be the person who helps a student realize “This is me! I can do this.”

Photos © 2016 The Regents of the University of California, through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Photo Credit: Paul Mueller.