Discovering Doors to Opportunity


If you have never met a chemical engineer who researches how cancers grow or a computer scientist who helps reduce homelessness, how would you ever know the ways STEM helps to improve society? People set their dreams and goals by what they know, by whom they know, which is why exposing ourselves to people and social movements expands what we imagine is possible. Want to eradicate cancer, homelessness, poverty, hate, climate change? One way to do so is to learn how STEM can help.

This is the work of the K-12 STEM Center: to help K-12 students see opportunities to impact society in new ways, to let them experience for themselves how STEM helps to engineer a better society.

Want to eradicate cancer, homelessness, poverty, hate, climate change? One way to do so is to learn how STEM can help.

A recent high school graduate told a group of 50 high school students about his experience in the lab of cancer researcher Nicholas Graham. Marcus Guttierez described himself as a good but not overly ambitious student at Huntington Park Institute of Applied Medicine (HPIAM) when he was invited to participate on Professor Graham’s research team in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. Marcus was tempted to turn it down because he didn’t know what chemical engineering was, but he challenged himself to open up to something new.

"This experience," he told 50 students participating in UNITE LA’s virtual internship called The Real World of STEAM, “opened a lot of doors I didn’t know were there.” 

Many of the students to whom Marcus was speaking have similar stories. For instance, Marcus’ parents did not go to college. Although his older sister was good at math, he didn’t know anyone who worked in STEM. What’s more, Marcus simply did not find much connection between his chemistry class and the real world. In fact, he thought he wanted to be a film director because he certainly understood the power of film.

Reflecting back on his experience in USC Viterbi K-12 Center’s Summer High School Intensive in Next-Generation Engineering (SHINE) program, Marcus observed: “Before I entered the SHINE program, I had very little grasp of chemistry and why it is so important in the world we live in today. I did not think you would use chemistry knowledge in cancer research. I also did not fathom how frequently STEM fields overlap, such as chemistry and biology or chemistry and mathematics.” Marcus emphasized that actually doing chemical research rather than studying chemistry in class or from a book made it come alive for him.


"This experience opened a lot of doors I didn’t know were there.”

- Marcus Guttierez

Marcus is now a first-year student at USC Viterbi. Is he studying chemical engineering? No. He’s declared himself a civil engineering major. Once again, Marcus is willing to move from what he already knows – the comfort and accomplishments of Professor Graham’s laboratory – to something new that beckons him thanks to his willingness risk doing something entirely new. He credits participating in SHINE as building confidence, revealing to him that even as a first-generation college student from an inner-city school, he has much to offer his professors like Nicholas Graham and to peers who may come from more elite high schools. Even though Marcus never failed in SHINE, he learned to ignore the fear of failure that surfaces any time someone does something new: “Failure doesn’t have to be negative, because it’s a learning opportunity,” he told the group meeting over Zoom because of COVID-19.

The K-12 STEM Center partners with UNITE LA to help open doors of opportunity for students throughout the Los Angeles region. UNITE LA has worked with Professor Graham and HPIAM for the past four years to help students discover the many academic and career possibilities in the the region’s flourishing biotech sectors. Thanks to scholarships created by UNITE LA and the K-12 STEM Center, HPIAM has sent three students to experience research in the Graham Lab. Their research results can be seen here.

Many thanks to Marcus for sharing his story, to Professor Graham for his commitment to opening his lab to the next generation of students who may never have otherwise understood how important chemistry is to fighting cancer, and to UNITE LA for making this conversation available to the students of “The Real World of STEAM.”

Published on September 17th, 2020

Last updated on September 24th, 2020