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Sparking curiosity

For 25 years, an outreach program has shared the wonder — and career prospects — of science with local youth.

Mentor Jeffrey Gamble (center), a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering, interacts with students at Soldan International Studies High School. YSP Continuing Mentor volunteers meet regularly with students during all four years of high school.

The decibel and excitement levels were considerably higher than usual as students huddled over preserved human hearts during biology class at Vashon High School in St. Louis. A visiting Teaching Team — made up of graduate and medical students from Washington University’s Young Scientist Program (YSP) — led the hands-on demonstration.

Vashon biology teacher Samantha Lurie stepped back as the YSP team took charge, explaining how to measure blood pressure, use a stethoscope and identify parts of the heart. The team also showed the hearts of a smoker and nonsmoker, and discussed the related health risks.

“The Teaching Team sparked the students’ curiosity,” she said. “It was great to see my students asking a lot of questions, and then later bragging about the experience to others.”

Participation is the cornerstone of the YSP. For 25 years, the YSP has increased the participation of underrepresented groups in science by bringing resources directly to St. Louis-area public schools.

“When I first came to the School of Medicine, there wasn’t much going on in terms of science education outreach to the surrounding community,” said James McCarter, MD, PhD, who co-founded the YSP in 1991 during medical school. McCarter now is head of research at Virta Health and an adjunct professor of genetics at the medical school.

“I was struck by the differing demographics between the urban communities we were serving and the people who were doing the research on campus,” he said. “I wanted to open the doors of opportunity to a broader group of people.”

To kick things off, an inaugural class of two high school students completed on-campus summer internships through the YSP. Now known as “Summer Focus,” it is a unique program that annually brings up to 16 outstanding high school students into university research labs for eight-week intensive biomedical internships, and provides a stipend. To honor the YSP’s 25th anniversary, McCarter, his wife Rosalie Truong, MD, PhD, and his parents, John and Judith McCarter, made a $100,000 gift commitment to the Summer Focus Program.

The YSP since has expanded significantly beyond its flagship summer initiative. Teaching Teams regularly ignite the interests of K-12 students in subjects ranging from robotics to forensics to genetics. And YSP Teaching Kits (experiments-in-a-bag that include instructions and materials) help enable any adult, regardless of background, to lead inquiry-based science experiments with students. Kit topics cover nine subjects — such as DNA extraction and natural selection — to enhance a school’s science curriculum, and can be requested through the YSP’s website, ysp.wustl.edu.

Additionally, the YSP hosts field trips to the Medical Campus and presents “Family Medical School,” a series of annual public workshops at the Saint Louis Science Center. There, children and their parents learn about human anatomy and physiology, as well as diseases and ways to stay healthy. Through these and other efforts, the YSP has connected with more than 10,000 students.

Students leading students

Throughout its growth and evolution, YSP has remained a volunteer-led effort. Graduate and medical students coordinate the program, solicit funding, and generously share their time and talents to cultivate greater diversity in the next generation of scientists.

“The Young Scientist Program played a big part in my decision to attend Washington University,” said Reyka Jayasinghe, YSP co-director and a doctoral candidate in molecular genetics and genomics. “Many schools have great research and great faculty. But Washington University was the only school I could find with an opportunity for graduate students to mentor and work directly with students of all ages.”

Volunteerism both distinguishes and enriches YSP tremendously. “First, the motivation of our leadership is entirely mission-driven, as opposed to a financial or professional obligation,” McCarter said. “Second, it allows for change. The Washington University students come into a leadership role for a year or two and move on. The program continually reinvents itself. Over the past 25 years, I have seen the program improve and iterate with each new generation of student leadership.”

Boahemaa Adu-Oppong, a YSP co-director and doctoral candidate in evolution, ecology and population biology, helped launch the newest outreach effort: Continuing Mentoring.

Continuing Mentoring provides a steady source of mentorship for science-interested students from Soldan International Studies High School and the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, a public magnet school.

“There was no curriculum when we started,” Adu-Oppong said. “We had to build it from scratch.”

In the program, mentoring PhD or MD students meet twice monthly with the local students during all four years of high school and facilitate job shadowing opportunities with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals. Mentors also assist with ACT preparation, résumé making and the college application process.

“Now that I’m in college, I realize how much YSP has helped and prepared me,” said Bradley, who is now a sophomore majoring in biology and pre-medicine at Howard University on a full-tuition scholarship. “My professors were impressed that I was already published and have told me that this makes me more competitive for medical school.

“The Summer Focus writing course put me ahead of my class, in terms of scientific writing. When I started working in the lab at Howard, I already knew the equipment and procedures.”

Later, she was invited to a national conference to present her freshman research on bacterial phages. “It was a breeze,” she said, “because of my Summer Focus experience.”

The legacy continues

Bradley is hardly alone among the 300-plus Summer Focus alumni in carrying YSP’s lessons with them into their academic and professional careers. In 1995, Bart Bartlett had none other than YSP founder Jim McCarter as his Summer Focus mentor. Two decades later, Bartlett, PhD, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan, still draws on his formative experiences.

“Even though Summer Focus started out with me doing some simple lab work, Jim made certain I could see the connection between what I was doing and the goals of what the lab was doing,” Bartlett explained.

“Now that I have undergraduates working in my lab, I try to emulate that mentorship by providing young people the opportunity to do something with their own hands in the lab, to contribute intellectually and to develop those connections,” he said. “What started at Summer Focus continues on.”