Toward an Inclusive Next Generation of Physicians and Scientists

A School of Medicine pipeline program supports underrepresented high school students on the road to health sciences careers

On a sunny day this past summer, a group of high school students was exploring a biomedical engineering lab on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus with obvious enthusiasm.

“I can show you all the different kinds of cells that we’re growing in the lab right now,” said Nashielli “Elli” Diaz, E22, an intern in the Integrated Biofunctional Imaging and Therapeutics (iBIT) lab, as the visiting students—mostly rising juniors and seniors from Boston and Medford public schools—took turns peering through a microscope.

The lab trip was part of a new, six-week summer program called Tufts Mini-Med Connect. The program, offered by Tufts University School of Medicine, gives high schoolers from groups that are underrepresented in the health sciences the opportunity to learn about careers in medicine and research. In addition to the faculty they met, the high schoolers were matched with undergraduate mentors—Diaz, Enrique Rodriguez, E23, and Marianne Chuy, E23—who were also finding their place in the scientific realm this past summer.

Mini-Med Connect is designed to provide future health leaders with resources and opportunities that may not have otherwise been offered to them. The goal is to cultivate an environment where students can explore cutting-edge medical science topics and careers while connecting with a community where they can ask questions about being Black, Indigenous or a person of color in STEM, and about college applications, financial aid, and participating in research as an undergrad.

The aim isn’t to get these high schoolers interested in science—they’ve already shown their passion for that. Dayanara Mendez, a Boston student who was born in the Dominican Republic, has long wanted to be a doctor. “I just love seeing myself in the future, diagnosing a patient,” she said. “It’s so brilliant.”

Rather, said Berri Jacque, director of the School of Medicine’s Center for Science Education (CSE) and the creator of Mini-Med Connect, “the primary goal is to keep those sparks and fan them.” He said a big fall-off in STEM engagement happens between high school and the second year of college. “Many students, especially if they're coming from a first-gen family or from a background that is less reflected in the sciences, have a much higher likelihood of losing interest in science once they get into college.”

During their weeks at Mini-Med Connect, Jacque said, the high schoolers started building a network of support and knowledge, the kind that will help them in college. “You get your first F or face a microaggression in class and you say, ‘Well, I’m never going to be a physician.’ That’s when you need to call someone up, someone who has been through that.”

Mini-Med Connect grew out of the very successful Mini-Med School pre-college summer program that Jacque, Research Assistant Professor Carol Bascom-Slack, and the School of Medicine launched with University College last year. More than 300 students have taken part in that two-week health sciences curriculum—presented online because of COVID—that combines medical case studies, lab work, and student research projects and video presentations, all under the guidance of School of Medicine MD students who act as teaching assistants. It’s something of a pre-pre-med program.

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