Serendipity in the worst seats
Victoria Freedman: I’m perennially late – always running from one thing to the next – and so is Amy. Now, it’s important to note that the “best” seats in a lecture are always at the back of the auditorium so that you can get out quickly if your beeper goes off. Or, strategically, if you’re a busy person and the lecture doesn’t look like it holds value, you want to be able to get out...
Amy Fox: But when Vici and I were both late to the same lecture, the only seats left were in the very front row. Our shared bond over terrible seating got us talking. I mentioned that I did clinical research and Vici brought up her undergraduate research program (for university students) and said, “Maybe we could work together.” It was as simple as that!
Vici: When Amy and I met, I had established a robust summer undergraduate research program that brought students into labs to introduce them to research and prepare them for careers in the biomedical sciences. The only piece we were missing? Clinical research. And that’s what Amy brought to the equation.
Amy: It’s something I was already doing informally, but without the classes, field trips, and other benefits Vici and her team had organized. Bringing the two together was a perfect marriage! The only problem was that, as we explored the possibilities, we realized that we were reaching students way too late. Ideally, we’d get them in kindergarten – but that’s impossible, so high school is the next best thing!
Vici: We realized that the students in our program were already committed to the career paths they had chosen – and that, with or without our program, they had every opportunity available to them. These students were going to do well no matter what. We wanted to open a program to students who had few opportunities – students who didn’t know much about science or medicine, may not speak English well, and had no chance of success without support. That’s when we started talking about a high school program focused on students from the Bronx – our local area, where the income level is extremely low and the educational resources very poor.
Amy: We’re both from the school of “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” so we wrote and submitted a grant to the Siemens Corporation – and they gave us US$25,000. It was like Christmas! Next problem? We had money – but no students.
So I sat down and I began to call high school principals. Can you imagine taking this call? “My name’s Amy Fox. I’m a physician at Montefiore, we’ve just received a grant from the Siemens Corporation, and we’re starting a high school research program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Can I get on your calendar?” Who would say no? And no one did – from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science to the local schools that barely had a science program, everyone called us back. And then we came to our next problem – who was going to invite these 16-year-olds into their labs for the summer?
Vici: We asked faculty to identify graduate students and postdocs in their labs who were interested in working with high school students. It was not only an intellectual commitment, but a time commitment as well – scientists, who typically work odd hours, had to commit to being in the lab during the same “daylight hours” as their students.
One by one, we identified the problems and – by sheer force of will – overcame them. Everything from participant permission slips to which chemicals minors are allowed to use. In the end, we had a lot of opportunities for zebrafish studies – educational, but innocuous!
Amy: We didn’t just want students who had top grades in top schools; we wanted students with a passion for intellectual inquiry into the areas of scientific discovery. And that’s what we told them from day one: that the six weeks of the program were about nurturing their love of science.
Vici: We wanted the students to know that science is all around us, so we didn’t limit their experience of science to our labs at a major research institute. We took a trip to the Bronx Zoo, where we spent the morning in the veterinary pathology lab and had a series of lectures by veterinary pathologists about all kinds of zoonotic diseases. We also took them to a genome exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History and behind the scenes at the New York Botanical Gardens, where they study the active ingredients in folk medicines to identify future drugs. The students even got to see Charles Darwin’s original writings there!
Amy: I went on that trip three times. We also took the students to a Broadway show with the undergraduate summer students, which helped the two groups form a relationship. The natural conversation that evolved over time between the high school students and the undergraduates gave them a view of the future; they could see where they might be in four years’ time.
Our students are a heterogeneous group; we get people from the inner-city Bronx who have never even considered college or a professional career and we also get people from the elite high schools of New York. Once they get here, though, they’re all one group – and each side derives benefit from a relationship with the other. The program has helped us form unique relationships with inner-city Bronx high schools. We have students who originally believed their education would end at high school – but who go on to attend Ivy League universities. So many young people have said to us, “I didn’t know I could be a nurse.” “I didn’t know I could be a doctor.” “I didn’t know I could be a scientist.” The Einstein Montefiore Summer High School Research Program isn’t just about six weeks of research; it’s about opening up the whole world to every participant.
We’ve been doing this for seven full years now and not only have we seen students from our high school program return to do undergraduate research at Montefiore, but we’ve even seen two of our former students get married while attending medical school together!
Two sides to every coin
Vici: Although the experience has been amazing, we have to be realistic – it’s not a bed of roses!
Amy: This is not a program for everyone; we’ve had one or two students who have had to drop out of the program. These are students who have family responsibilities or night jobs they have to work to support themselves. It would be miraculous if we could give these students a stipend so that they could complete the program. We’re not there yet, but one day we might be.
Vici: We’ve learned some important lessons along the way – for instance, that it’s hard to fund a program year on year. Each year, we scrambled to find funding – and each year we managed to find just enough for that summer. We need a sustained source of funds, which we have yet to find.
We also had communication issues. Because we’re involved with medical students, graduate students, and postdocs, it took us a while to learn how to speak the language of teenagers. We also had to shift our expectations. When we started, we had the notion that all of our students would be from underserved areas – but it turned out that, although we could have done that, it was even more powerful to bring those students together with peers from more privileged backgrounds.
Amy: They all learned from each other. One student had no computer – so the others banded together and lent him one. Another traveled two hours each way on public transportation to get to campus – so the others found ways to drive him or at least to meet him on the journey. The camaraderie between these young people was inspiring.
Vici: It also helped that the students with more resources were completely focused, not only what college they were going to, but also on what they might do afterward – careers, graduate school, medical school… The other students hadn’t even had those ideas yet, so when they saw others their age with such lofty goals, they began to “think big,” too. It changed everyone’s perspective.
Amy: To ensure we reached the under-resourced communities we wanted to serve, we cast a wide net early on. We phoned all of the high schools in our area – we don’t offer boarding, so students must live locally – and, thanks to our early networking success, the program now has tremendous word of mouth. It takes tenacity to get to this point, though.
Vici: It’s also important to understand our environment. It’s not difficult to find underprivileged schools; in fact every school in our local area qualifies. It’s actually more difficult to find students from privileged schools because that is a different net – and we have to balance the two sides carefully.
Amy: Establishing this kind of program is not without its challenges – but if I could send one message to anyone in a position to do it, I would say, “Just do it.” It may not be easy – especially if you have to find support and funding – but it’s worth it. And we’re happy to share our blueprint. There are many science programs for high schoolers, but ours stands out in two key ways: it offers six weeks of daily interaction with both peers and professionals – and it’s free to access.
I’ve now passed the co-directorship of the program on to my colleague Michele Ewart, but I’m remaining on board in an advisory role.
Vici: We want to see this work spread around the world. It’s an investment in our future. We’re capturing students’ attention young – and now, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s the perfect time to not only spot the scientists of the future, but get them excited about science.
Support is everything
Vici: Amy and I had a great idea – but what really made it work was the synergistic effect we had on each other. What one of us didn’t do, the other did. We didn’t plan that; it was serendipity!
Because of Amy’s position in the Department of Pathology (and her status as a well-known pathologist, virologist, and point-of-care testing expert), everyone knew her. I was also relatively well-established on the academic side of things. As a result, we had a lot of relationships to draw on. Would another clinical department have worked equally well? I don’t know – but I do know the breadth of pathology made it a good place to start.
Amy: I couldn’t have done this without the support of my department. In fact, I co-opted everyone who worked with me and said, “How can you help?” The students became part of the department, so everyone became invested. Instead of asking me why I had to miss a meeting for a field trip, it was, “Can I come on the trip, too?” Instead of trying to avoid meet-and-greets with the students, it was, “Can I do a demonstration? Can I show slides? Can I give a tour of my lab? Can I introduce them to what it means to be a pathologist?”
I was surprised at how eager my colleagues were to share their work with high-schoolers. They weren’t just coming for a free lunch – they didn’t want to leave!
Vici: We make it clear to both participants and supporters that our goal is to foster a love of science. The program isn’t a fast-track to a Nobel prize – or any prize. It’s not a fast-track to scholarships or admissions. We’re very proud of everything our alumni have achieved, but those achievements are because we gave them a chance to experience the realities of a career in science early – and that brand-new experience kindled their passion for science.
If you ask children in elementary school to picture a scientist, they’ll think of an old white man with crazy hair. But if we ask students who have finished our program, they picture themselves.
Amy: It opens up a world to them that they never realized could be theirs.
Amy: Even now, in the age of the five-second email, I’d encourage people to begin just like we did – with a phone (or video) call. Nothing replaces a personal relationship. Why? Everything revolves around trust: between us and the institution; between us and the high schools; between us and the parents. Can you imagine asking the parents of an inner-city teenager to let their child travel two hours a day to join our program instead of earning a summer wage and helping support the family? That has to be personal. You can’t put it in an email; you have to pick up the phone and say, “Trust me with your 16-year-old because, if we’re successful, this may change their life.”
Vici: You need to engage parents. Before the summer high school research program started, I hosted an event called Bronx Science Day for middle-schoolers and their families. A team of graduate students and I took over an empty lab, borrowed equipment, and set up experiments. And I discovered that kids love this stuff, but they’re also used to it. It was the parents who had never seen an experiment before – and, when we showed them, they couldn’t get enough! That really taught me the value of reaching out to not just children, but parents as well.
Amy: We also serve a wide range of cultures. We’ve had female students whose culture didn’t permit them to be alone in the lab with a man – so we worked with their families to find ways for her to complete the program under those conditions. We’ve had students who were heavily involved in competitive sports and we’ve had to work with parents to evaluate whether or not the program could accommodate that involvement – and, if not, which option was in the student’s best interests. After all, our participants are still children. They need to explore their interests and pursue their passions.
So my advice is to stay personal. Consider the whole child and the whole family, and build a relationship with them that sets the student up for success.
Vici: The most important thing I’ve learned is never to underestimate the talent, interest, or energy of a young person who is exposed to science for the first time.
Amy: With the right set of ingredients, our students’ eagerness and desire to learn permeates all spaces. Faculty become not just willing partners, but devoted mentors. And that initially surprised me; these are extraordinarily busy people and there’s no incentive to participate – but the students’ enthusiasm is an irresistible force. When we say that children are the future, it’s not just conversation.
Reprinted with permission from The Pathologist magazine, May 2021.
Posted on: Monday, August 02, 2021