Jasmine Smalls enrolled in Cheyney University of Pennsylvania hoping to become a nurse.

But a strong mentor in the school’s biology department gave her some exposure to a fish lab. And soon, she became hooked.

So it was that Smalls, 21, was presenting her research on the global characterization of karlodinium veneficum and their RNA sequencing to a distinguished group of scientists in a downtown Baltimore conference room Friday.

Smalls was one of 17 students to graduate Aug. 2 from the Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center, an educational partnership program with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and various universities. The program strives to bring more minorities into the environmental science fields. Many of the participating universities are, like Cheyney, historically black colleges. Cheyney, which is about half an hour from Philadelphia, is the oldest historically black university in the nation.

Over the past decade, about 140 students have participated in the program, which is housed at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, part of the University of Maryland System. Their summer projects have ranged from work on eelgrass beds to research on crab viruses. They have been in the lab, in the field and all over the Chesapeake region in pursuit of the research.

Some recent interns have gone on to graduate school or jobs in marine science. Smalls is hoping to do both — secure a job in an aquaculture lab, then follow that with an advanced degree.

“I like to be hands on with the fish,” she said.

On choosing a project that focused on a harmful algae, she said: “I know one of the problems is fish kills. We’re looking at ways to treat the water, if it’s possible.”

In her internship, Smalls worked with Allen Place, one of the world’s experts on Karlodinium. Other mentors include Eric Schott, known for his work on molecular pathogens in oysters and crabs in closed aquatic systems; and Rosemary Jagus, who looks at gene control in early development. Jagus also runs the program.

IMET director Russell Hill said the program is so important to his institution - and to science in general — that he tries to never miss the presentation day. He arrived to hear them even though he had returned home at 1 a.m. from Korea — just nine hours before the presentations began.

“This program is a real cornerstone of encouraging diversity in the science community,” Hill said.

Over the years, Jagus has written recommendations and served as a reference for many former interns. A few are getting doctorates at the institution now. That’s especially gratifying, Jagus said, because one of the goals in running the program is to open students up to opportunities at IMET.

“We’re bringing enrichment, or enhancing the knowledge they already have through our molecular techniques,” Jagus said. “It is a really good thing.”