Sharing the spark: Faculty reach out to the next generation of scientists

December 21, 2012

Careers in science can seem out of reach for some, and can’t come too quickly for others. At the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, these two different problems can lead to the same outcome: Research scientists pouring their energies into helping middle and high school students explore science careers long before it comes time to fill out applications for graduate school.

On November 27, the College of Medicine hosted students from Hammond-Oliver High School for the Human Sciences, a local magnet school for science and health professions, in an ambitious pair of half-day programs that offered nearly two hundred ninth- and tenth-graders hands-on experience with human anatomy, a tour of the COM’s  state-of-the-art Clinical Learning Resource Center, and interaction with and lectures by faculty members in the college’s Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics.

Man holding top of skull

In one session, students visited the anatomy lab of assistant professor Gregg Allen, Ph.D., where they were able to examine a human brain from the college’s Willed Body Program.

“[That was] my favorite part about the lab … even though I was about to pass out,” tenth grader Ariel Gholson said. “I don’t think that this is something I would have had the chance to do at any other school.”

What students learned while at the clinic is not only integrated in their biology and anatomy classes when they return to school, but may serve them in the future as well. Planning for college and a career in health care, while still in high school, is often an important stepping stone for their futures.

Although the program is coordinated by the college’s Office of Institutional Advancement, it takes a significant commitment from faculty to prepare for, and then host sessions for the students over the course of a day. So what motivates the involvement of faculty who have medical school students to train and research to conduct?

“Honestly, a change of pace is one of the best parts about teaching high school students,” Dr. Allen said after showing a self-described dyslexic high schooler the areas of the brain that relate to the learning disability. “It’s remarkable to have conversations with these students.  The depth and understanding they have of biological principles at this stage of their education is admirable.”

Assistant professors Ian Murray, Ph.D., and Diane Chico, Ph.D., also contributed to the project, with Chico presenting a lecture on histology and the interrelated nature of biological sciences and Murray providing insights into memory, including brain-based studying tips.

students in labSome faculty members’ passion for outreach leads them to take on even greater challenges. Dr. Andreea Trache’s Saturday Morning Biophysics program, now in its fifth year, is a case in point. The program, designed for middle school and high school girls in Bryan/College Station and surrounding communities, has built a network of faculty, students, school administrators, and community groups to deliver the program.

The program was initiated as part of the educational initiative of the National Science Foundation Career Award Trache received in 2008, which provides the funding for the program each fall. The girls in attendance are not required to pay.

“The main goal of the program is to encourage women into science, by stimulating interest among middle- and high-school girls and minority students, in biophysics as well as science in general,” Dr. Trache said.

This past October and November, forty-one girls from eleven different schools attended the program on five Saturdays for three hours each morning. Students are split into groups and rotate to different demonstrations, experiments, and speakers, work with equipment that they would not normally have a chance to operate at school, and participate in hands-on activities like cutting lenses out of Jell-O to use with laser pointers in optics experiments.

A faculty member and a graduate student speak to the group each session, with faculty members lecturing on their field of interest and the students, often first-generation college students or first-generation doctoral candidates, speaking about their path to college or graduate school.

“I think this program is important because it allows the students to learn and experience science in a fun, supportive, and less formal environment than the classroom, so I think they can be more engaged and less constrained than they might be in a school situation,” said Van Wilson, Ph.D., a professor in the department of microbial and molecular pathogenesis. Wilson presented at the program in 2011, was voted as the most popular speaker that year, and invited back in 2012. “It also provides them with the opportunity to interact with practicing scientists. I think it’s important that they see that scientists are real, ‘normal’ people just like them and that they could become scientists if they want.”

The Girl Scouts have also helped out with the program four out of the last five years. They offered assistance in transportation for the girls from rural communities, and have also helped provide meals.

“Many of the girls who attend are from smaller towns like Caldwell and Somerville,” Trache said. “Without the Girl Scouts providing transportation for them, they would not have been able to attend.”

Each year, attendance of the program has increased—a testament to Dr. Trache’s dedication to networking in schools to recruit students for the program.

“I spent three weeks on the road this year,” she said. “I was just going to all the schools and talking to the students and teachers about what we are doing.”

Trache is dedicated to continuing to expanding and add to the program.

“I am looking forward to see the program grow in number of students attending the program, as well as diversifying the activities that we will offer, especially the hands-on activities,” she said.  “Reaching out to the girls who are interested is key.”

More: Hear how students will integrate what they learned into their studies on YouTube, or view our photos of these outreach events on Pinterest.

— Jeremiah McNichols