DAVIS -- Michael Peng is spending the summer under a microscope.

He is working side-by-side with researchers at UC Davis, logging 9-to-5 days in the molecular and cellular biology department lab examining the structure of a protein on HIV cells. The goal is to eventually apply the science to find a cure.

"Being at the lab is just so exciting," he said. "There's a great synergy."

But Michael isn't a college student. He is a 15-year-old incoming junior at California High School in San Ramon and one of 40 students selected for the university's Young Scholars Program.

Grace Pan, 16, a student at Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon, is also in the class.

The nearly half-century-old program pairs high school students with professors to work on original research, said Rick Pomeroy, director of the program and a lecturer-supervisor in the university's School of Education.

"These are not projects made up for kids to do," he said. "These are real research projects."

Michael and Grace are part of a group of about 350 students from across the United States and other countries -- a student from China joined the group this year -- to apply to this year's program, which costs $5,000 and earns students five units of college credit.

Michael, a library volunteer, said he wanted to explore his interest in science and the UC Davis program was one of the rare ones that accepted incoming high school juniors as well as seniors.

"I really wanted to do something with my time and, not only that, contribute in a scientific field for the betterment of the human race," he said.

After arriving for the program June 19, the students spent two weeks hearing from faculty on a variety of subjects, from evidence of life on Mars to the theory of learning, to butterflies as an indicator species in California.

"Everything they exposed you to were new things you've probably never heard of," said Grace, who is working in the department of plant biology mapping gene expressions and protein levels of tomato plants.

On the weekends, the scholars take part in field trips, including visits to the Donner Summit Gateway Mountain Center, the UC Davis Environmental Research Center at Lake Tahoe and the Bodega Marine Laboratory.

All the while, the group members live in the dorms, eat at the dining commons and interact with their peers.

"One of the things we are very interested in is preparing them for their first year of college," Pomeroy said.

Michael, who hopes to attend an Ivy League school, and Grace, who is aiming for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both described the introduction to attending a university as "amazing."

"You get to really explore the college life," Grace said.

The program will culminate July 30 at a symposium where students will present their research in a lecture format that will mimic a professional conference.