When her grandmother died from Alzheimer’s Disease two years ago, Stephanie Torres asked herself, “What can I do about this?”

Her quest for an answer accelerated this summer as Torres, a senior at Reverend Harold T. Branch Academy for Career and Technical Education, began a 12-week internship conducting biochemistry research at Boise State University in Idaho.

“I want to help people suffering from Alzheimer’s,” she said. “In the future, I hope to work for the Centers for Disease Control. I’m interested in how they make vaccines.”

Torres, Chelsea Miller and Kirklan Hinojosa, all 17, are the first students from Branch Academy to be awarded internships through the Biotechnology Program at Del Mar College. The two-year-old high school, a partnership between Del Mar College and Corpus Christi Independent School District, exposes students to college-level courses and gives them a jump-start on their careers. Through Del Mar’s dual credit program, students can graduate from the academy with an associate’s degree.

“I was a little overwhelmed because it felt like a career environment instead of a school,” Miller, a senior, said of her orientation at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, where she’s concentrating on microbiology research. “I learned about microorganisms in my freshman year, and I wanted to learn more. Such small things can affect us in big ways, like the flu virus.” 

Securing the internships was a coup for Del Mar because competition is fierce for the grants that fund them, according to Patricia B. Dominguez, Del Mar director of Early College Programs. They were made possible by grants from the U.S Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation. 

A factor that worked in the Branch Academy students’ favor was the laboratory research experience they had gained in Del Mar’s Department of Natural Sciences, which put them on par with mostly adult students from colleges and universities.

“They’re trail-blazing,” Dominguez said. “Most students don’t get exposure to these labs until they’re in a master’s degree-level program.”

The students had to apply for the internships at Branch Academy and go through an interview process. Selection depended largely on their commitment to succeed, said Ileana Lane, PhD, a counselor at the academy.

Hinojosa, a member of Branch Academy’s first graduating class this year, is excited to begin his internship in the laboratories at Del Mar College. He plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree and work in the biotechnology industry. 

“I feel very lucky,” he said. “Some people don’t get internships. I guess this shows I’m interested and I want to go further.”