SMYSP volunteers paid with smiles

Courtesy of Stanford Medical Youth Science Program

Stanford Hospital nurses Sheryl Michelson and Barbara Odin are honored for their longtime volunteer efforts mentoring high school students through the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program.

More than 100 people logging 2,460 hours without pay, yet with smiles on their faces. For the faculty, staff and student volunteers in the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program each year, this is a typical summer spent introducing low-income high school students to the possibilities and excitement of the medical field.

"Volunteers often tell us they reap more from the program than the students," said Marilyn Winkleby, PhD, associate professor of medicine and founder of SMYSP. "It opens their eyes to different cultures, breaks stereotypes about teenagers and lets them interact with young people of color in our area."

Winkleby started SMYSP in 1988 with two Stanford students to expose 24 low-income and ethnic minority high school students from Northern California to the biomedical sciences every summer. Beyond their five-week on-campus training, the program was designed to increase diversity in scientific and health professions by training future leaders who reflect the nation's increasingly diverse communities.

"These kids are at under-resourced schools, and they don't know how to approach a health-care professional," said Winkleby. "Everything snowballs against their aspirations because there's no guidance along the way."

In the last 19 years, 428 students have completed the summer residential program. By shadowing medical professionals in the community—including Stanford undergraduate mentors, medical students, staff and faculty—the SMYSP participants gain priceless training and hands-on experience in the medical field, all before receiving their high school diplomas.

Stanford Hospital nurses Sheryl Michelson and Barbara Odin are standouts among the program's volunteer corps. At the second annual SMYSP Volunteer Service Awards on July 27, the two women were honored for their longtime support of the program.

"Because of supporters like Sheryl and Barbara," said Judith Ned, executive director of SMYSP, "we are able to provide quality and meaningful experiences for our students that guide them toward becoming future health professionals and community leaders."

Michelson, an OR nurse and education manager, has been a volunteer for 16 years; Odin, an ICU nurse and patient manager, has been part of the program for eight years. Between them, Michelson and Odin have mentored more than 50 SMYSP participants. Both have spoken on behalf of the organization, said Ned, and freely given advice to participants interested in nursing careers. Other volunteers conduct professional development workshops, test-preparation training and discuss career options with the participants.

In accepting her award, Odin told the crowd of about 150 SMYSP volunteers and participants, "It's so nice to work with people who are enthusiastic."

"The summer program would not be successful if we didn't have volunteers," said Ned. "They are the cornerstone of who we are and what we achieve."

Even after completing the program, volunteers continue to mentor the participants, guiding them professionally and in countless other ways. A 2006 summer participant interested in helping animals, for example, was matched with a veterinary medicine volunteer for the summer. The volunteer then set up an opportunity for the participant to visit the San Francisco Zoo to work with larger animals, fostering his interest in animal care beyond the program's tenure.

"Volunteers have helped SMYSP participants with computers, even buying a prom dress," said Winkleby. "It's exactly what you want to happen in volunteer work."

Aditi Risbud is a science-writing intern in the School of Medicine's Office of Communication & Public Affairs.