A new endowed fund at Scripps Research is helping up-and-coming scientists from under-represented backgrounds to enroll in university without the constant worries of financial insecurity.

Alesandra Rodriguez (middle) with Julianne Han, PhD, (left) and Andrew Ward, PhD, (right). Photo Credit: Jon Torres

A new way to support early-career scientists in their education

For the high school and undergraduate students who intern in a Scripps Research laboratory, the barrier to a future career in research is by no means a lack of scientific experience. Instead, it is often the looming financial burden which stands between them and their path toward further education.

Recognizing promising young scientists from under-represented backgrounds, Professor Andrew Ward, PhD, set up an endowed fund to launch a new program to support Scripps Research interns in their pursuit of full-time university degrees. After being awarded to the inaugural recipient—Alesandra Rodriguez, a talented college student—the fund now sets an example of how to establish an ongoing commitment to provide equal opportunities for students pursuing careers in science and research.The proceeds from the endowment will extend to $25,000 per year, provided for two years, to offset tuition and other educational expenses.

“The scholarship should empower students to enroll in four-year degrees without the significant financial barriers currently in place,” says Ward. “It will enable them to focus wholly on their studies, instead of worrying about working multiple other jobs to make ends meet.”

Ward and his team developed the first detailed images of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and subsequently created a way to stabilize the protein, making it possible to create effective vaccines against the virus. As a result, the Ward lab receives royalties from the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, which are being used support science and engage the community in ways that are not possible with conventional scientific funding mechanisms.

“An obvious area of unmet need is the advancement of under-represented minorities to research and science-based careers,” Ward says. “Alesandra’s path through my lab is a perfect example of what is possible and how we can support future generations.”

Inaugural recipient,
Alesandra Rodriguez.
Photo credit: Jon Torres

Congratulations to Alesandra Rodriguez, inaugural recipient

Rodriguez first came across the Ward lab while searching for a place to intern as part of her coursework at High Tech High School. “I’ve always been interested in science, but it’s really hard to find places that are willing to give high schoolers a chance to experience research firsthand,” says Rodriguez. “I was honored that Scripps Research, and Andrew Ward in particular, offered me the position. Something about those six weeks in the lab really stuck with me.”

Graduating high school, Rodriguez hoped she would then go on to become a first-generation college graduate. However, it was 2020 and the pandemic had turned her world upside down.

“Our financial situation has always been difficult,” says Rodriguez. “And with the pandemic restrictions, it was so stressful for my family trying to keep their food packing and distribution business afloat. It didn’t seem like the right decision to apply to university given how expensive it is.”

After deciding to enroll in a local community college instead, Rodriguez reached back out to the Ward lab to see if she could continue building on her research experience. 

“With Alesandra’s talent and initiative, I immediately offered her a formal position in the lab as a research assistant,” says Julianne Han, PhD, a staff scientist in the Ward lab and Rodriguez’s day-to-day supervisor. 

Working under Han in the influenza research group, Rodriguez has made significant contributions to studying the immune responses to potential universal flu vaccines. Now, with the newly established fund, Han and the remainder of the Ward lab are looking forward to watching Rodriguez’s academic career flourish.

“I remember that day Andrew called us into his office,” says Rodriguez. “He said how proud he was of everything I had achieved and that he wanted to help me continue this journey. When he told me about the scholarship, I was in complete awe; my brain couldn’t process it. But knowing I had made my family proud was even more emotional. When I called my mom to tell her, she immediately started crying.”

With the funding in place, Rodriguez now hopes to transfer to UC San Diego to pursue her undergraduate degree in general biology. The award will relieve Rodriguez from needing to work several part-time jobs and provide critical access to further education and training that were previously off limits.

“I lost track of the hours, days and months I had spent applying to other scholarships,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking when you either find out you don’t qualify or you don’t even receive a response.”

Upon completion of the two years of funding, Ward intends to identify new recipients of the award based on nominations from the Scripps Research faculty.

“The goal is to grow the fund with help from others and to offer it to more individuals who decide to intern at the institute,” says Ward. “I view this as a long-term investment in the future of those students from under-represented communities. I hope it serves as an example of the impact this kind of philanthropy can have.”