Program opens doors to the world of medical science

Five weeks at Stanford motivates many high schoolers to become the first in their families to attend college

Steve Fisch Photography

Third-year medical student Dora Castaneda (center) explains principles of human anatomy to high school seniors Keshia Groves (left) and Julio Gomez during this year’s Stanford Medical Youth Science Program.

Like many in the School of Medicine, Chloe Sheard's day starts at 8:30 am. She spends her morning in lectures on cancer biology, nutrition or doctor-patient communication, and then rushes off to an anatomy lab after lunch.

Two days a week, she interns at Stanford Hospital, where she recently watched doctors perform a caesarean section. Evening workshops and study time keep her busy until long after the sun goes down. She calls herself a workaholic, and worries about getting enough sleep.

But Sheard isn't a medical student. In fact, she'll just be starting her junior year of high school in San Leandro this fall. Her hectic schedule is part of the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, an intensive summer residential course in science and medicine for low-income and minority high school students.

Every summer, SMYSP selects 24 motivated teens from throughout central and northern California to spend five weeks studying with Stanford professionals.

Sheard has learned a lot about time management this summer. "If I have a big amount of homework, I make sure to do at least 25 minutes of studying each day," she said. "I have to prioritize, relax and not stress out."

The biographies of former students, posted on the SMYSP Web site, often read like scripts from the 11 o'clock news. These kids have survived gang warfare, refugee camps and even the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Compared to such trials, even the strenuous schedule of SMYSP is a welcome and productive challenge.

"We create an environment where it's OK to be smart and curious about science, which many of these students don't experience elsewhere," said associate professor of medicine Marilyn Winkleby, PhD, who founded the program in 1988 and now serves as faculty advisor. "All these kids are bright and strong, and many of them will be the first in their family to attend college."

The lab experience and classroom lessons, though important, are only part of the SMYSP program. Students also get a crash course in the college application process, lessons in networking and public speaking and one-on-one mentoring from a Stanford professional or a medical or graduate student.

To let the numbers tell it, the program has been incredibly successful over the past 18 years: except for 31 students still in school, every one of SMYSP's 381 alumni has earned a high school diploma, and all but seven of those graduates have attended college. Of that college-bound majority, more than 60 percent have declared a major in biological sciences or a health-related field.

"We need minority professionals to address the lack of quality health care in underserved communities," said Judith Ned, executive director for SMYSP. "We believe our students will be the ones to effect that change."

Besides tracking statistics, Winkleby and Ned make a point to personally keep up with former students. Though a handful have slipped through the cracks, nearly 98 percent of the program's alumni are in regular contact. The program keeps an open-door policy, providing long-term college and career advising to anyone who has spent time with SMYSP.

And in addition to academics and networking, the program helps students build enduring friendships that last well beyond the summer.

Amanda Brooks, who will be a junior in Sacramento next year, wasn't too interested in making friends at first. In fact, she had planned to keep to herself during the program, but now that the program is over, Brooks' view has changed. "You can't live with someone for five weeks and not talk to them," she said. "I met a lot of great people I want to keep in touch with."

Social time is a deliberate addition to the weekly schedule and, for many of the students, the summer provides their first exposure to different cultures, attitudes and ethnicities.

"It's hard for many of the students to open up at first, but by the end, they don't want to leave," said Ned. "Many of them come in thinking they are the only people who have experienced hardship, but then they meet others with common experiences."

The program's influence extends beyond its high school participants; every summer, Ned recruits 10 Stanford undergraduates to work as counselors. "They come in to the program wanting to change the world, and in small part, they do," Ned said.

Aparna Chhibber, soon to be a senior at Stanford majoring in human biology, was impressed enough with her experience last summer that she decided to return as a co-director. "The counselors seem to gain as much from the program as the students do," Chhibber said. "It's inspirational to see the amount of motivation and drive in these students."

Every year, the program receives nearly 250 applications from high school students for 24 slots. Ned and the student counselors carefully winnow this huge pile down to 45 of the most highly qualified applicants, and invite them to spend a day at Stanford.

Choosing this short list and the final 24 students is tough. Ned and her staff look for academic achievement, leadership and community service involvement. But most importantly, they look for a history of personal adversity and the determination it takes to triumph over tough circumstances.

Everything Sheard has learned this summer will come in handy down the road, she said. While many of her peers are busy deciding what high school electives to take, she already has a very specific goal to work toward in the years ahead.

"I want to be an obstetrician," she declared, "or a pediatric cancer specialist."