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Beetles, Biochemistry, and Belonging: Q&A With Our Student Apprentices

For some, the word “apprentice” conjures scenes from yesteryear when seasoned artists, bakers, and blacksmiths trained young novices to keep their businesses going in perpetuity.

At The Nat, we ask not what our apprentices can do for us, but what we can do for our apprentices.  

This mindset crystallized in spring 2021, when we extended our long-held student apprenticeship program to underrepresented groups in San Diego County by offering seven part-time, paid apprenticeships. These positions were open to high school seniors and undergraduates interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. 

We knew that unpaid apprenticeships really shut out students who might not be able to afford to volunteer their time while in school,” says Dr. Michael Wall, vice president of science and conservation and curator of entomology. He adds that although this opportunity pays like a part-time job, it is still considered pre-entry-level positionwelcominstudents with little or no experience to the world of research.

When reviewing applications, we were looking for folks with an open mind, willingness to learn, and some sort of passion for nature,” says Wall. 

After days of fieldwork, weeks behind microscopes, months of database entry, and thousands of specimens recorded, our STEM apprentices’ time with us is drawing to a close. We caught up with two of them in our research labs to learn how things went and where they’re going next.  

Talina Murguía is a senior at High Tech High School in Chula Vista. She joined Dr. Wall and Collections Manager Pam Horsley in the Entomology Department. 

Gerardo “Jerry” Cardenas is attending San Diego City College as a biochemistry major. He worked with Curator Brad Hollingsworth and Collections Manager Frank Santana in the Herpetology Department. 

What are you most interested in at school and how did that lead you to The Nat? 

Talina MurguíaI love the outdoors and I love math so environmental science feels like a natural thing for me to studwhen I go to college. Last yearI took an environmental science class at Southwestern College to test it out, and my professor forwarded this internship to me. The ad said the Museum wanted youth in San Diego that are interested in STEM and I thought, “Oh, hey that’s me!”  

Jerry CardenasI am very passionate about biology and chemistry. Doing forensic science for a law enforcement agency is my main career goal. But before I do that, I’ve wanted to learn what it's like to work in labs and in the field with other scientists, because I've never really had that experience outside of the classroomThis apprenticeship offered all of that, so I applied.  

Did this apprenticeship give you more clarity for your future? 

TM: Up until this apprenticeship, my only idea of an environmental career was a park ranger, so I wanted to see what my other options wereAt The Nat, following other people’s projects along with my own has been inspiring. I often think, “Ooh, I could do that too. 

It’s also shown me that I can feel welcome in a place like this, in research labs. Everyone here is so relaxed and so passionate about what they're doing. I love that I’m not always the geekiest one in the room. 

JCI’m interested in the biological and chemical work that helps build drug or murder cases within the DEA or other law enforcement agencies, so learning about specimen preservation and data organization has been helpful. Working with human specimens is very different, but the procedures are similar and now I can say I have experience preserving animals and using data entry programs. 

What has been your proudest accomplishment with The Nat? 

TM: This was basically my first job ever, so just getting this opportunity was an accomplishment. As far as my work goes, the other entomology STEM apprentices, Leonardo Gonzalez and Emily Korte and I made a big dent in digitizing the museum’s collection for the LepNet project. I was a part of every step of the data collection—I took the pictures, I added them to the database, I analyzed them. I’m proud to have been a part of every step of that process. 

JCI’m proud of how much I’ve improved my organizational skills, especially technology wise. My mentor, Frank Santana, taught me so much. I'm not great with technology, but learning how to use the same programs other researchers are using has been amazing, and I can put that on my resume.  

Have there been any challenges with your work here? 

TMBefore this apprenticeshipI didn't know anything about bugs. I liked them, but I didn't know taxonomic names or how to identify themI felt so behind and had imposter syndromeI didn’t think I belonged here.  

But after the first week, I remember thinking, “Oh, wait. I'm pretty good at this, I can do this.” The staff here gave me really good instruction too, I never felt uncomfortable asking for help. And now, they are invested in my lifeask me about college, and offer help with anything. I feel I have so many great resources here.  

JCI’ve been coming to the museum since I was a kid, so when I got this apprenticeship, I was very excited. However, on the first day of the orientation I was told I’d be in the herpetology department and I have a huge phobia of snakes. thought, “Oh shoot, what am I going to do now?” But I always like to take on challenges and, thanks to this program, I've learned to get over my phobia little by little 

Were there any skills you already hathat helped you during this apprenticeship? 

TM: In the world I come from, it's stressed that you have to be able to talk to adults and communicate well, and I would say that has helped me a lot with my collaborative work.  

JCI second that on communication. It’s really important for my job as a valet downtown as well as in school. Here at The Nat, whenever I had misunderstandings or opposing ideas with my partner or mentors, I was able to easily solve the problem or come to an agreement, which helped move things forward.  

Now that you’ve spent so much time with The Nat’s collectionsdo you have a favorite specimen? 

TM: I would have to say it’s the beetles. Everyone always gives extra attention to the Lepidoptera [the moths and butterflies] because they’re big and pretty, but the beetles are so tough and yet so small. I just love their funny postures.  

JCFor me it’s the horned lizards. I had never seen these animals before I started working here. They have such interesting features and great defense mechanisms. My favorite specimen in particular is a preserved California king snake that died while trying to eat a horned lizard. The lizard is still stuck in its throat. 

The Nat’s Apprentice Program was made possible by the William Cole Foundation, John DeBeer and Mona Baumgartel, David B. Jones Foundation, and The San Diego Foundation.  

All future paid and for-credit apprenticeships with The Nat will be posted on our employment page 


STEM Apprentice Jerry Cardenas (right) enjoyed getting hands-on fieldwork experience—something he didn't get in school.

Our STEM Apprentices learn all sorts of scientific skills, from microscopy to database management to specimen preservation.

In addition to their work in the lab, our apprentices participated field excursions to learn about our collection practices.

STEM Apprentice Talina Marguía reflects on her time with The Nat during a presentation to her cohort.

STEM Apprentice Jerry Cardenas spent a lot of time in our wetlab, preserving and documenting new additions to the collection.

Posted by Cypress Hansen, Science Communications Manager on December 8, 2021

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