When Isai Rea’s friends ask him what he is doing at his summer job, the 18-year-old just shrugs and says, “I play with mice.”

He says that’s easier than trying to explain his lab studies looking into whether the combination of nicotine and high-fat diets are contributing to heart disease.

Isai is interning this summer at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in South Los Angeles as part of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases’ STEP-UP research program. The program is aimed at giving underrepresented aspiring scientists experience in lab research.

At the end of the summer, he will go to Washington, D.C., where he will present a paper on his findings at the National Institutes of Health.

Isai admits it’s not your typical summer for a newly minted graduate of King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in South Los Angeles, but he thinks the internship will give him a leg up this fall at the University of California, Berkeley where he plans to major in environmental sciences and environmental economics.

Six months ago, he wasn’t sure where he would go to college. He had been accepted to both Juilliard to study acting and UC Berkeley to pursue science.

It wasn’t until he was awarded a $40,000 Edison Scholars scholarship to help pay for his tuition and other college costs that Isai made up his mind to attend Berkeley. He hopes someday to become the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The scholarships are sponsored by Edison International, parent company of Southern California Edison, to help minority, low-income and underrepresented Southern California students pursue studies in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM).

“At Edison International, we realize that higher education is a transformative tool,” said Tammy Tumbling, SCE director of Community Investment and Philanthropy. “As an energy company, we believe educated students have the power to change lives, communities and the world.”

For now, Isai is excited about his lab studies. Dressed in a freshly-starched white lab coat, Isai enters the lab like an old pro.

He expertly picks up a battery-operated pipette to extract the chemicals needed to create a gel to use on the slides he will examine under a microscope.

Isai says the study is important to him because he has so many friends who smoke e-cigarettes. He wants to be able to show them that it is the nicotine in both regular cigarettes and e-cigarettes that is the culprit in heart disease.

Indrani Sinha-Hikim, an associate professor at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science and Isai’s mentor, said she knew she wanted him as an intern.

“He said ‘Dr. Indrani, when they say e-cigarettes are not that bad because they don’t have carbon, they are wrong,’” she said, noting he immediately understood it was the nicotine that was the contributing factor. “I was so impressed by that.”

Isai says working in the lab has given him the kind of hands-on experience with scientists, researchers and equipment that he never got in high school, even in AP biology.

“I learned all this technology that will be beneficial in college,” he said. “It feels good that I can walk into any lab and feel comfortable.”