Q&A: Former Birch Aquarium Intern Turned Scientist and Professor

The Upward Bound program at Harvey Mudd College has been helping low-income high school students who are considered “potential first-generation college students” in the East San Gabriel Valley to “generate the skill and motivation necessary for success in college” for more than 30 years. Every summer, two high school students from the program spend six weeks at Birch Aquarium under our aquarists’ supervision. They learn about biology, how to care for the fish, and other skills associated with aquatic husbandry.

We blogged about this program earlier this year, when our head aquarists Fernando Nosratpour and Leslee Matsushige were honored as recipients of a 2013 UC San Diego Diversity Award. Leslee and Fernando have been working with Upward Bound and its students for more than 20 years.

Earlier this summer, we received an email from Raul Diaz, a former participant in Upward Bound at Birch Aquarium. Since finishing the program, Raul not only went on to college, but completed his masters and doctoral degrees and is now a researcher and college professor. We asked him to tell us about his experience at Birch Aquarium, and here’s what he had to say:

Raul Diaz (middle) with Birch Aquarium aquarist Fernando Nosratpour in 1997

Raul Diaz (middle) with Birch Aquarium aquarist Fernando Nosratpour in 1997.


In what year did you participate in Upward Bound?

I graduated from Baldwin Park High School in 1999, so my internship at Birch Aquarium must have been the summer of 1997! Wow, that was a while ago.

What did you do during your internship?

I was excited that Birch Aquarium at Scripps allowed me to help set up a display for that summer’s Shark Week. I developed skills doing literature searches and setting up displays for the aquarium. I was also trained by several of the staff on how to feed a variety of invertebrate and vertebrate species. I made a lot of “Krill Shakes!”

What was your favorite part of the program?

My favorite part of the program was that the staff at Birch Aquarium trusted me to do my job independently. I gained a lot of self-esteem and it motivated me to learn more on my own. It was really nice to learn about the biodiversity in the marine realm and interact with the public.

How did your time at Birch Aquarium inspire you for a future career in science and/or education?

My internship prepared me for working at the interface between science and the public. I later had another internship at the Smithsonian Institution, which was comparable to Birch, and I am currently a faculty member at a university as well as being associated with a museum. Doing research, publishing, maintaining live animals in captivity, and reaching out to the public continue to be the mainstay of my own professional program.

What have you done since that summer?

I went on to get my Bachelors from UC Berkeley, my Masters from the University of Kansas and my Ph.D. from the University of Kansas Medical Center (with my research from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, MO). I am currently an Assistant Professor at La Sierra University, adjunct faculty at Loma Linda University Medical School, and Research Associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles in the Division of Herpetology.  I explore reptile/amphibian biodiversity and the evolution of vertebrate body plans. I have a lot of fun in my career and continue to be excited about all organisms (including marine organisms, although I don’t work with them at the moment).

XXX and head Birch Aquarium aquarist Fernando Nosratpour in 2013.

Raul Diaz and head aquarist Fernando Nosratpour in 2013.

Part of our mission at Birch Aquarium is to provide ocean sicence education to the public. We love hearing stories from visitors who have been insipred by their visit to the aquarium to pursue careers in science or participate in citizen science. How have your experiences at aquariums or museums inspired you?