Today at Berkeley Lab Berkeley Lab logo US Dept. of Energy logoBerkeley Lab logo
Monday, August 16, 2010

CSEE Program Helps Turn Things Around for Undergrad

By Julie Chao

Eddie Hercules Morris did just about everything in high school except study. He played football and baseball, held a steady job throughout his four years, was prom king and even did African drumming. A couple times, his GPA dropped to as low as 1.1. Ultimately, he barely graduated from Berkeley High School with a 2.14 GPA.

Two years later, he’s spending the summer working in the laboratory of scientist Danielle Tullman-Ercek, putting engineered genes into bacterial cells to study protein pathways. He’s also trying to decide whether to accept a full scholarship to UC San Diego to study chemical engineering.

How did this astonishing turnaround happen? First, “I graduated high school and had to take a hard look because I had nothing on my plate,” says Morris. He enrolled in a community college in Richmond, Contra Costa College, and for the first time, he studied. That involved learning all the things he missed earlier, things like multiplication and division. Eventually, he was taking calculus, chemistry, physics and other science classes.

He realized he liked science. A counselor suggested he apply for a summer internship at Berkeley Lab. Then came the second breakthrough. “That summer solidified me as an upcoming scientist because I knew I could do it,” he says. More importantly, he realized he could fit in as a scientist: “I always thought of a scientist as a short guy with glasses. My mentor that summer was black — that was the last thing I would’ve seen coming. I also saw scientists with dyed hair and tattoos. So I thought, why can’t I do it?”

The Lab’s Center of Science and Engineering Education (CSEE) provides a number of programs for students of all levels, from elementary school through college. Some do summer internships only to realize science isn’t for them. Once in a while, though, the internship makes a big impact on an individual’s life. Morris himself can hardly believe the transformation. “Everybody from high school is shocked that the guy who never went to class is now studying chemical engineering,” he says with a grin.

Last summer, he was in CSEE’s Community College Institute program, studying under the mentorship of William Lester of the Chemical Sciences Division. This summer he’s in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) working in the lab of Tullman-Ercek, a scientist with the Joint BioEnergy Institute. “She’s teaching me real chemistry and real science, actual experimentation,” he says. “I’ve learned so much this summer about genetics, biology, bioengineering.”

Although he does not want to pursue a career in research, he’s sure his internship experiences will give him a leg up in the job market. He’s long forgotten his dreams of playing professional football. Now he can’t wait to join the ranks of professional chemical engineers. “There aren’t a lot of African-Americans in science,” he says. “I found out 2.2 percent of our nation’s engineers are African-American.” The pay doesn’t hurt either, he admits: “Chemical engineering is in the top three of highest-paid salary-based jobs. I Googled it.”

Today at Berkeley Lab is produced by Public Affairs' Communications Department