Ervin Meneses, a summer intern in Reginald Penner's chemistry lab at UCI
Santa Ana High School student Ervin Meneses, a summer intern in Reginald Penner's chemistry lab at UCI, meticulously readies a slide to produce gold nanowires. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Gold nanowires can activate a credit card or launch a missile. Gossamer-fine, they can even carry a 17-year-old from poverty to possibility.

All summer, Ervin Meneses has driven an old minivan between his gang-plagued Santa Ana neighborhood and the manicured UC Irvine campus. His parents worried when he was selected for a National Science Foundation high school outreach program by UCI chemistry professor Reginald Penner; his friends labeled him a nerd. His uncle saw it differently, though, and lent him the van.

Each weekday, after donning purple gloves, a white lab coat and goggles, Ervin starts to work. His mission: to grow gold-coated filaments 1,000th the width of a human hair. Creating nanowires is a tough, tedious task that stumps even veteran researchers, says his mentor, Jung Yun Kim, a third-year graduate student. But Ervin never gives up.

“He’s really something else,” says Kim. “I feel more motivated to work every day he’s here. He is so full of life.”

In a series of steps stretching 40 minutes, Ervin coats a wafer-thin glass slide in nickel, blowtorches it dry, and moves to a specially lit “yellow” room, where he creates a template on it with plastics that are sensitive to normal light. From there he rinses the slide with nitric acid, partially dries it, and carefully clamps it with tweezers to dunk into a watery gold solution. Once the slide is safely in the beaker of liquid, an electric switch will be flipped. If Ervin’s done everything correctly, his nanowire will start to grow.

The slide trembles slightly as he lowers it toward the gold solution. A tiny corner chips. As he checks the damage, it slips from his grasp and shatters, useless.

“Damn,” says Ervin tersely under his breath. He removes his goggles for a minute and then doggedly begins again.

Ervin is here because of his favorite science teacher, Gary Reynolds, whose alma mater is UCI. When Penner e-mailed Reynolds last spring asking about students interested in internships, Reynolds read the message aloud in class and wrote the website address on the board. Those interested would have to figure out the application process themselves.

“I don’t hold their hands,” he says gruffly. When Ervin needed a ride to the interview, Reynolds obliged, dropping him off at UCI’s daunting Natural Sciences II building. Ervin would have to figure that out too. When Reynolds returned, he could tell by Penner’s excitement that the teen had made the cut.

Ervin has loved math since third grade and is fascinated by science. He’s thrilled to be in the Penner Group High School Outreach Program. It doesn’t hurt that girls think it’s cool that he’s a researcher. But he has also been pushed hard to try drugs and join a gang.

“I’ve been offered so many bad things,” Ervin says matter-of-factly. He continues to make tough choices this summer. He wants to go to the beach, for example, but he doesn’t. He used to want to be a soccer star – kid stuff, he now scoffs: “What do you do after age 35? What’s your plan B?”

Fortunately, the neighborhood pressures are easing. “My friends, they say, ‘Leave him alone. This guy is going to be somebody in life.’ It makes me feel good. I’m going to go to college now,” Ervin says. “I’m focused on my golden life ahead.”

He’d like to earn an undergraduate degree at UCI and then attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’ll need scholarships but says he’s seen classmates in tougher circumstances do it.

Penner’s summer lab program should give him a leg up. Of the two dozen Orange County students chosen to participate since it began in 2001, most  have gone on to top-ranked universities. Most have come from wealthier communities and were not compensated for their work in the program.

This year, with federal funds, Penner was able to bring in Ervin and another deserving classmate, who both needed paying summer jobs. Ervin will get $4,000, about the same as he would have earned at Chuck E. Cheese’s, his previous job. “That was Payless shoes; this is Air Jordan,” he says, comparing the two.

Every penny will go to his parents, he vows – no new clothes, no games. His mother works in a factory making soldiers’ helmets; his father is a Newport Beach pet hospital attendant. “They’ve sacrificed so much,” he says in the shining glass lobby of the science building.

Ervin, who was born in California, is blunt about what he assumes many think of his presence on campus. “The world view is that Mexican kids like me don’t belong here,” he says. “But I’m here! And I love it. I love diversity.”

Back in the lab, he painstakingly processes another glass slide and submerges it in the gold solution. Kim flicks on the computer that will reveal whether a nanowire is growing. The computer crashes, is rebooted. Ervin’s foot taps nervously. Kim turns on the monitor again.

A thin blue line sprouts across the screen from left to right. “That’s Ervin’s nanowire,” says Penner, leaning in to get a better look at the slide in the beaker. “Oops!” He has bumped the tweezers.

It will take 600 seconds – that’s how precisely things are measured here – to find out whether the nanowire survived. If it did, it must then be vacuum-baked and tested for resistance. Assuming the nanowire passes, it will contribute to new data Penner and Kim hope to publish showing that gold nanowires are more efficient. Their use could mean less electricity consumption, fewer harmful emissions and lower costs for the circuit board industry.

Penner says Ervin has done so well he could end up being a co-author on the study – a first, as far as he knows, for a high school student. That afternoon, Ervin peers into a microscope at the final results. Atop thick fingers of nickel sits a slender line: a gold nanowire.

“Yes!” he exclaims.