STOCKTON — Briana Rocha-Gregg is a living, breathing example that anyone who puts in the hard work and is curious about the world around them can become a scientist.

Not too long ago, the 34-year-old Stockton native never imagined herself going to a four-year university. No one in her family had.

After graduating from Brookside Christian School, Rocha-Gregg went to San Joaquin Delta College off-and-on for 10 years while balancing full-time work and raising a family.

It wasn’t until then she settled on becoming a scientist.

Rocha-Gregg would go to University of California, Davis and graduate in 2014. After starting her doctorate, she founded the Young Scientist Program, aimed to enhancing K-12 science education specifically in San Joaquin County.

UC Davis has similar after-school programs that go to schools in Winters, Woodland and the Sacramento area, but none that had expanded to the Central Valley, said Rocha-Gregg as she and nine UC Davis graduate students prepared at Taylor Elementary School on Friday afternoon.

Dozens of fifth- and sixth-graders worked together to take part in experiments about DNA. For the hands-on approach, students extracted DNA from strawberries using household products, making DNA models, learning about different levels of cells and mutations.

The Young Scientist program came to be after an elementary school teacher expressed intimidation with working on science experiments to Rocha-Gregg. Many felt the curriculum was outside their comfort zones.

What started off as small classroom visits that incorporated interactive experiments, Rocha-Gregg started receiving requests from educators and the program suddenly ballooned in recruiting hundreds of UC Davis volunteers.

While the overall goal of the program is to get kids interested about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, it’s also important to show that anyone, no matter of background, can become a scientist.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t picture myself going to be able to be a scientist,” 28-year-old graduate student Robert Stolz said.

Going to school in San Jose, he credits taking part in classroom experiments with animal dissections as the moment he knew what he wanted to do. Now, Stolz is studying DNA biophysics.

“Experiences like that when you’re a kid stick with you,” he said.

“By interacting with us, they can see that we’re just, like, dopey regular people. Hopefully, if the kids imagine themselves as being ‘Maybe I can be a scientist someday,’ that is the highest thing that this program can achieve.”

In a way, Rocha-Gregg sees herself in the students she visits.

Said Rocha-Gregg: “For some reason I thought (scientists) were really special people that went to Ivy League schools … I didn’t realize that a normal person could go to Delta, transfer, and have a successful scientific career.”

 

Contact reporter Nicholas Filipas at (209) 546-8257 or nfilipas@recordnet.com. Follow him on recordnet.com/filipasblog or on Twitter @nicholasfilipas.