Jefferson Award Winner Founded Cal NERDSBy Sharon Chin

SAN LEANDRO (KPIX 5) Remember the old Mentos candy and Diet Coke trick? Cal students are using this classic experiment and other lively demonstrations to show San Leandro kids an explosion of fun.

Now, 10-year-old Theo Forsberg wants to be scientist.

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“Well, it felt really cool, how you can make some big bubbles out of some polymer crystals,”  Forsberg reported.

Diana Lizarraga hopes that these experiences will pique young kids interest in STEM programs. Lizarraga is the founder of a service project called Cal NERDS (New Experiences for Research and Diversity in Science), which she started at UC Berkeley in 2006.

“I’m just a nerd at heart,” she said.

At Cal NERDS, Lizarraga guides more than 100 minority and low income students into STEM careers. She serves up a buffet of support that includes scholarships, mentorships, research programs, leadership training, and even professional clothes for interviews.

As she puts it, she wants to “inspire future generations of nerds.”

Lizarraga’s commitment to her young students is unparalleled.  She drives the 4 1/2 hour roundtrip commute from her Davis home to UC Berkeley a few times a week.

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She cares deeply about helping students like Delina Meharenna, who says that Lizarraga helped grow her dream from studying mental health in a lab, to starting her own foundation.

“We’ve actually sat down and created a dream timeline,” Meharenna remembered.

In fact, even when Lizarraga had cancer-related surgery, she never wavered for students like Darae Jun.

“She was recovering but never shared signs of it,” Jun said. “She was always there for you.”

Lizarraga has raised more than $4,500,000 in grants and donations to support Cal NERDS.

“My hope is that our community of nerds will find a path that resonates with them that’s related to STEM,” she said.

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So for giving Cal NERDS support toward STEM careers, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Diana Lizarraga.