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High School Catalyst Program: A closer look at a science summer program for under-served high schoolers

From July to August 2019, MSKCC and Weill Cornell Medicine laboratories hosted 12 high school students as part of the New York Bioforce program. This workforce development program was proposed by HYPOTHEkids, a “STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, Math) education and youth talent development” community outreach initiative founded by the Harlem Biospace in 2013 and supported by the Pinkerton Foundation. HYPOTHEkids’ mission is to “provide under-served students with hands-on science and engineering educational and mentorship experiences such that they can thrive in the high tech economy of tomorrow”.

As part of the High School Catalyst Program (previously called Weill Cornell Medicine High School Immersion Program), under-served NYC high school students were offered the unique opportunity to work hand-in-hand with a research scientist during a 150 hour paid internship in a biotechnology research laboratory at MSKCC and Weill Cornell Medicine. Some high schoolers were also selected to receive an extra stipend from the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), an NYC youth employment program for career exploration and work experiences during the summers.

Students were first matched with a mentor and a laboratory depending on their personal scientific interests. Mentees then received 100 hours of personalized training at Columbia University, a curriculum equivalent to a semester long lab course. They learned experimental design, record-keeping in a lab notebook, and the fundamentals of programming. Fully trained, they reached their new temporary occupations in two of the most renowned institutions in the country, suited up their lab coats and gloves, and looked for answers to biological questions. Although teachers and career days at school drew a vague picture of careers in STEAM fields, it was the first time they were in contact with professional scientists and got a real sense of the scientific research process. At the end of the program, they proudly presented the outcome of their experience to their colleagues, peers, and family during a poster symposium at Weill Cornell Medicine.

The Bioforce Program has been running for 2 years and is still evolving for the better. This year, members of the MSKCC Postdoctoral Association and Cornell Graduate School as well as more than 20 volunteers (postdocs and graduate students) provided mentees with numerous science related learning opportunities and activities. During regularly scheduled Journal Clubs, mentees were taught how to read, interpret, and digest scientific literature. The Journal Club sessions evolved as the students developed active reading skills to debate the results and present the logic of the article to their co-mentees. Throughout the program, mentees participated in the HYPOTHEkids Alumni Round Table, BigSibs program, and two career panels. These panels facilitated interactions between the students and program alumni, grad students, postdocs, and fellows. Mentees were particularly enthusiastic about getting the opportunity to interact with scientists and BigSibs in a one-on-one setting. It was easier for them to ask questions, hear about their mentor’s experience, and receive academic and career advice. The mentees were also exposed to institutional seminar series at MSK and Weill Cornell. Altogether, the career panels, conversations with people from all stages of training, and exposure to institutional seminars illustrated the breadth of the biomedical research enterprise.

Both students and mentors were asked to share their thoughts about and experiences in the program by the MSK PDA’s Science Communications team. The responses from both groups were positive and highlighted the critical importance of individualized mentorship at early stages of scientific training. Students learned a great deal about the biomedical research enterprise, the day to day of professional scientists, and the highs and lows of experimental science. Students also reported that the training they were offered and the network they built will be of great help for college applications and their future careers. On the flip side, mentors highlighted the great responsibility for scientists at all levels to facilitate the training of the next generation.

This unique Bioforce experience encouraged students to develop scientific and critical thinking skills essential for a scientific career and also useful and important outside of the lab. Students were taught how to ask meaningful questions, suggest hypotheses, and test them through experimentation. They analyzed their own results and came up with conclusions, which led to new fascinating questions.

Mentees also realized that “science doesn’t always work out”. Indeed, a lot of different conditions must be tested for an experiment to produce meaningful results. A challenging part of research, said one mentee,was troubleshooting where something went wrong when an experiment doesn’t work out. Students began to appreciate that a significant part of scientific research are “negative” results. Although negative results are infrequently published or celebrated, they are often the results that are the most helpful in guiding new experiments and getting the exciting discoveries.

One interesting life lesson that mentees learned during the program is that it is “alright not to know everything”. Instead of feeling frightened, ashamed, or insecure when they did not know something, they were taught to seek out answers, ask for help, and avoid staying confused. Being a scientist is about being curious and learning new things every day. One has to learn how to be comfortable with the unknown and to reach out for help when needed. As one mentee mentioned, “even graduate students and postdocs do not know everything”. Scientific specialties are so specific that it would be impossible to know every detail of every field. As our projects often evolve in directions that we do not expect, it is quite common, as scientists, to seek out help, turning toward the expertise of other researchers through collaboration. Scientific theories and techniques are changing and evolving at a fast pace. Researchers have to adapt and learn by reading and asking for help every day. Being versatile and vulnerable are necessary skills for researchers in the lab and in life.

All 2019 Bioforce Mentees highly recommended this program. They described it as an eye-opening and invaluable experience that boosted their interest in basic and translational STEM careers. “I enjoy researching new theories and ideas to improve society and lead to the development of new medicine to help patients,” replied one of the students when asked about their motivations. These sentiments were surely shared by their mentors, and other scientists working at MSKCC and Weill Cornell. What Marie Curie said about radium can be applied to science, medicine, and knowledge: “Radium is not to enrich any one. It is an element; it is for all people”. Many high school students are not aware of what research is about or the different career options that exist in STEM. In order to build awareness to STEM fields, which represents such an important part of society, it is important for scientists to share their experiences with broader audiences. The Bioforce Program provides just such an opportunity for scientists to educate and mentor the next generation.

The Bioforce mentors encompassed a range of scientists at Memorial Sloan Kettering and Weill-Cornell. Mentors generously committed time (and money, as was the case for one principal investigator whose donation helped cover the cost of food and metrocards) over the summer to introduce their mentees to the scientific process and the contexts for their projects. We asked mentors about the role of mentorship in the scientific process and all agreed that it is an integral component for transmitting knowledge through generations but, perhaps unsurprisingly, many found the transmission to be bi-directional. Teaching the students about their projects required mentors to identify the core question driving the experiments and, in turn, they got fresh perspectives from young, inquisitive minds. Mentors also found that the usual elevator pitch, typically laden with jargon, needed modification. This process of making their projects more interpretable to the lay person was beneficial for the students and mentors alike.

By far the most uniform feedback received from the mentors was how important it is for scientists to help the next generation of thinkers and researchers. Many of the scientists recalled their own starts in science and chose to pay their positive early experiences forward. It can be argued that this detail is the key message of the whole experience: mentorship necessarily takes on many forms and occurs at all stages of scientific training. The continued evolution of the Bioforce Program will provide crucial exposure to biomedical research for high schoolers from under-served areas. It will also provide mentorship opportunities for those generous scientists that recognize that their contribution to science encompasses the results from their projects and the training of the next generation of scientists for that next big breakthrough.

Christine Kovich, co-founder of Harlem Biospace and executive director of HYPOTHEkids, began the Bioforce program to offer more in-depth, project-oriented scientific research experiences to high school students. She envisions an evolution of the program to include a professional platform for more advanced research techniques offered to graduate students and potentially undergraduates.

Pedro Cito Silberman, Graduate student at Weill Cornell explains his experience with High School Catalyst Program and inspiring thoughts about mentoring: “Thinking back about the impact my relationship with my parents had on my upbringing and the mentors and supporters I had along the way, there are many instances where without that support, my life could have turned out much differently. As a latino immigrant, mentor and mentee relationships have been key to my path in academia. Mentorship is one of the most important aspects of the scientific process and something that Weill Cornell truly emphasizes. When I arrived at Weill Cornell, I realized we could extend our mentorship reach further to the surrounding future generations of scientists. I believe that increasing diversity and excitement in science needs to stem from early exposure in grade school and continued mentorship into the later stages of education and academia. Two years ago, with the help of the graduate school and with Dr. Marcus Lambert from the office of diversity, I started the Weill Cornell Medicine High School Science Immersion Program (WCMHSSIP) now the High School Catalyst Program. Starting this program from the ground up has been one of the most rewarding experiences and I am excited to see the impact this will have on students and our community at Weill Cornell. Our hope is that this program will give these children a support system in science and inspire them to pursue a STEM major in college. Since we started this program from the ground up, we plan to build a program that will be successful at the goal of exposing high students to scientific research and building a community that will help guide their futures.”

Swathi Iyer, Postdoctoral Fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center explains her experience running the High School Catalyst Program as a representative of MSK-PDA: with New York Bioforce and inspiring thoughts about mentoring: “I had the opportunity to pursue a STEM- related discipline early on during my training and there is not a day that I am not thankful for all the people who influenced me in taking that direction. One of the major contributions that helped me in choosing so was “mentorship”. And I believe that most of the successful scientists in academia will have a similar story to tell.

I had an excellent opportunity to collaborate and extend this key to success to the future young minds through the High School Catalyst Program offered through Weill Cornell Medical School run under the guidance of Dr. Marcus Lambert from the Office of Diversity and Pedro Cito Silberman, a graduate student at Weill Cornell Medical School. After a successful run of 2 years, I as a representative of MSK-PDA decided to join this excellent mentorship program and make it an integrative effort between Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Postdoctoral Association (MSK-PDA) and Weill Cornell Medical School to provide an even richer experience to this very well deserving young talented minds that are sent to our institutions to pursue research through the NY Bioforce Program.

The MSK-PDA has extensive experience in running mentorship programs through course development in schools, summer internships for undergraduate students to name a few. We held interactive workshops including journal clubs, career panels, seminars, one-on-one sessions with the students. These events had contributions from the diverse research community in both these institutions including graduate students and postdoctoral research fellows. The biggest positive reinforcement to this effort was the enthusiasm from the community to offer support for these programs. The community plunged forward to help in being volunteers, organizers and conduct these activities. The responses from the students and the positive outlook from the research community are proof enough on why these programs should be encouraged to continue. On a personal note, I had a memorable and a wonderful experience in leading this effort, and am very thankful for the support of the MSK-PDA in helping me run this successfully and hope that we can pursue to do this for years to come!”

Mar 3, 2020

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