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Girls Learn About More Than Science
at Expanding Your Horizons Conference

By Sherry Seethaler | May 15, 2006

"Crime scene investigations"
"Crime scene investigations"
Credit: Carmela Arstill, UCSD

Alchemy is not usually part of the high school curriculum. But a group of high school students from San Diego and Imperial counties changed copper into gold by following the instructions in an ancient Greek text at the fourth annual Expanding Your Horizons science conference, on Saturday, May 6 at UCSD. 

At the same time, in an adjacent laboratory in Bonner Hall, a group of middle school students were working with Lara Soowal, a lecturer in UCSD's Division of Biological Sciences, to solve a more modern problem: do store brand or brand name antacids have more acid-neutralizing capacity? Both brands of antacids claimed to have the same amount of the acid-neutralizing ingredient calcium carbonate, but the students found that the brand name antacids produced more carbon dioxide gas when they reacted with acid, indicating that they neutralized acid more effectively.

While the young alchemists and biochemists were hard at work, veterinarians and veterinary technicians from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences were teaching another group of students how to suture wounds and perform physical examinations on models of pets and livestock. The veterinarians’ explanations were interrupted by the occasional “oink” as the students tested their manual dexterity by trying to remove debris trapped in the ear of a model pig. When their forceps contacted the metal “eardrum” the model oinked a warning. 

These were just three of the 40 different workshops that took place around the UCSD campus at this year’s Expanding Your Horizons conference. Nearly 300 sixth- through tenth-grade girls attended the science workshops in small groups, while many parents attended parallel sessions designed to help them support their daughters academically. 

UCSD’s Chancellor Marye Anne Fox, who is a chemist and an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, kicked the day off by giving the assembled students and parents her “Science Top Five”—the five best things about being a scientist. On her list were: being able to do something important for one’s country and community; creating something that never existed before; and the opportunity to travel around the world and meet interesting people. Fox provided some colorful personal anecdotes including how she once “ran around the world in less than a minute—at the South Pole.”

One young audience member asked, “How do you get to be Chancellor at such an amazing place?”

“Take advantage of opportunities as they come to you,” Fox replied. Fox explained how she had originally planned to become a chemistry teacher, but the town she and her husband moved to did not need any teachers. She decided to go to graduate school in chemistry instead, and that got her started on a very different path.

The Chancellor’s introduction was followed by a keynote address on tissue engineering by Gail Naughton, dean of the College of Business Administration at San Diego State University and co-founder of the company Advanced Tissue Sciences. Naughton described technology she helped develop to grow human cells in three-dimensional bioreactors. The process “tricks” the cells into thinking they are in the body, so that they grow into new tissues, such as skin for burn patients, replacement blood vessels, heart valves and cartilage for damaged knees.

"Veterinary medicine--suturing wounds"
"Veterinary medicine--suturing wounds"
Credit: Kelly Dryden, The Scripps Research Institute

About 200 volunteers from all over San Diego County and beyond made the conference possible. Each small group of girls was accompanied to workshops by two mentors, most of them UCSD undergraduate and graduate students. Workshop presenters came from more than 30 different businesses, universities, museums, research institutes and government organizations. A steering committee consisting of 20 professional women from around the county, and chaired by Kelly Jenkins-Pultz, an equal opportunity program specialist from the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, spent a year planning the conference.

The first Expanding Your Horizon’s conference was held in 1976 at Mills College in Oakland, California. Since then more than a half million girls have attended EYH conferences nationwide. EYH aims to encourage girls to make science and math part of their career goals by providing fun, hands-on learning experiences and opportunities to meet and interact with positive women role models who are active in math- and science-related careers.

As for the alchemy, the girls learned that a healthy dose of skepticism is a good quality in a scientist. In the workshop, “The Great Penny Mystery,” students washed a penny in acid, and then watched it turn silver when it was added to a solution of zinc and lye. When they heated the silver penny in a flame, it turned gold before their eyes.

“See if you can figure out what is really happening,” encouraged Melissa Headly, a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who led the workshop with fellow graduate student Jessica Carilli.

The girls tried variations of the procedure, and with help from Headly and Carilli, determined that they had made a penny coated in brass—an alloy of copper and zinc.

The students were undaunted to learn they had not actually created gold. One demonstrated her entrepreneurial spirit. “I wonder if we could earn money doing this,” she mused.

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