As the Summer Olympics captures our collective attention, and as Spider-Man gives way to Batman in the multiplexes, high school junior Leonardo Sanchez-Noya spends the summer months tracking rats in a water maze.
The 16-year-old John A. Ferguson High junior is studying how well the little creatures retain and develop memories. He is a summer intern with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Leonardo, who lives in Kendall, was accepted into the internship program as a member of the Honors Executive Internship Program, through the Miami-Dade Public Schools system. He receives a grade and extra credit for the internship.
Leonardo is one of hundreds of high school students who has either worked as an intern this summer or who will begin an internship in the fall. Opportunities abound at museums, schools, newspapers, airports, labs and other places. The goal is to acquire on-the-job training and build a résumé before graduation, which will help in the competitive college admissions process.
“At this point I’m not sure what college I want to attend but I have always known I really like science and medicine and engineering,” Leonardo said. “One of the things I found interesting is neuroscience and applications of neurogenesis and how to stop diseases like Alzheimer’s.”
Leonardo thinks ahead. “I don’t mind if my body goes, but I wouldn’t want my brain to go. Paralysis of the spine is such a shame. You should be able to switch out the cable or mend the cable. I hope in years to come I could help with that. This [internship] will help me. I don’t want to get into a field thinking I might like this but not know what I’m getting into.”
Caridad DePaola, education specialist in the Office of Community Engagement for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, helps place kids like Leonardo in the internship programs in the summer and during the school year.
“I’m in love with this program,” she says. “It makes a difference when you see these kids excited about what they are doing. Sometimes they realize it’s not what they want. We also have law firms pay for kids’ prom tickets because they want to do something for them other than giving a credit. Very rewarding.”
The acceptance process begins with presentations at schools districtwide and recruiting for many positions begins in September.
The students are selected based, in part, on their weighted grade point averages. For the Honors Executive program Leonardo belongs to, a student must have a 3.0 or better GPA. For the CEO Internship program a 2.7 or so could qualify.
“We want to give those kids an opportunity,” DePaola says. “We try to place them in a career of their choice.” Positions in biochemistry and other medical fields attract the science-minded, as do the marine sciences. “Sometimes they are interested in zoology. We have a lot of vets that contact us and allow our students in there. The State Attorney’s Office has worked with us and we’ve made a lot of headway at the medical campus at the University of Miami.”
So far about 485 students have sent in applications, DePaola says, on target to reach or surpass last year’s 500.