Winkleby Lab In the Prevention Research Center

Copyright 1999 The Chronicle Publishing Co.  
The San Francisco Chronicle


Stanford program exposes low-income teens to careers in medicine

By - Peggy Spear

When Cindy Morales emigrated from Mexico with her family at age 12, she never thought she would be sitting in a Stanford University lecture hall four years later, learning about human biology from some of the world's top researchers.

Morales is one of the 23 high school students participating in the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program this summer.

In its 12th year, this six-week residential program places some of the most promising low-income students in Northern California into the classrooms, laboratories and operating rooms of a major teaching hospital for free. The kids get a first-hand look at science and medicine. At the end of the day, they go home to Roth House, a stately dorm on the the Stanford campus, where they eat together, study together and learn together.

In one summer, these students are given a wealth of information in academic and career guidance, says Mailee Ferguson, the program's executive director.

"We teach them not only about what careers in the medical sciences offer, but how to survive all the steps you need to take to get there," Ferguson said.

Besides attending lectures by renowned Stanford faculty members, the students work two days a week at Stanford Hospital in areas such as obstetrics, pathology and surgery. Although their duties involve entry-level work, they are exposed to a range of professions.

"Many of the doctors take these kids under their wings, and will show them how they perform a specific surgery, or deliver a baby," Ferguson says. "It's a very powerful experience for these kids."

Students agree. One noted:

"I feel like I'm learning more about life than I am about science. I used to think that going to medical school was out of my reach, but now it doesn't seem so far away."

The kids aren't the only ones recognizing the power of the Youth Science Program. Because of the quality of instruction, the Stanford program has become known as one of the most innovative college prep programs in the nation, says the founder, Dr. Marilyn Winkleby. Other universities, including the University of California campuses at Davis and San Diego, want to emulate it.


One hundred percent of the participants have enrolled in colleges or universities, with 16 percent attending Stanford and Ivy League schools. Fifty-three percent have gone on to the University of California system. Eighty-two percent of those students who have declared a major have chosen biomedical or physical sciences, with 64 percent considering careers in medicine.

These statistics may be surprising given the participants' family history. Nearly 70 percent of all participants over the past decade have been the first person in their family to attend college.

"I don't know what I would be doing this summer if I wasn't here," says Richard Davie Jr., a junior from the Sacramento area who is interested in attending the University of Michigan and pursuing a career in pediatrics. "I'm learning things here that I never thought possible for me."

The program, which is run mainly by Stanford students and recent graduates, is the brainchild of Winkleby, a Stanford researcher. As a University of California at Berkeley epidemiologist, she had come to Stanford to work on a large study on heart disease. Missing the social activism of Berkeley, she and two graduate assistants wanted to link academically promising students from East Palo Alto with the resources of Stanford.

"At first it was like pulling teeth, trying to get kids to be interested in the program," Winkleby says. "We finally found seven kids, and we were off."

The next year the program had 23 participants, and the students lived on campus, adding another important dimension to the experience: exposure to college life. Besides learning the basics of group living, students were briefed on the academic challenges that would lie ahead. The program also gave kids tips on applying to colleges and medical schools.

As the program grew, so did the financial support, and the Stanford program is now recognized as one of the most successfully administered and funded programs of its kind, Winkleby says.

"Of course, that's not to say that we haven't had to learn quite a bit over the years," she says. "We realized that before we could expose the students to college-level academics, we had to help them realize their worth."

Although that may seem like an easy task for many of these students -- some of whom never had scored below an A-minus in their lives -- it is tougher because of the backgrounds of the students, some of whom came from ghettos and migrant farm communities.

Many participants lacked peers who shared their academic zeal and exposure to people from different backgrounds.

"In this program we try to prepare the students for the rigors of college, and teach them how to swim rather than sink," Ferguson says.


The students have a rigorous schedule full of a variety of activities -- and not all academic. On one Monday afternoon, the aspiring scientists saw "Patch Adams," the Robin Williams film about a compassionate medical student.

Weekends include free time and "family days," as well as field trips to places and events the students might not otherwise be exposed to, such as plays in San Francisco.

The program stresses fun along with academics. Rather than tests, the students participate in game shows, a la "Jeopardy," with categories that reflect the week's curriculum.

"I feel a lot more comfortable knowing that I'm not going to be tested all the time," says Morales, the 16-year-old Watsonville girl who emigrated from Mexico four years ago. "It's more fun than that."

Another important lesson for students is learning to talk about their feelings, to ask questions and to share their fears about the future.

"This way," Ferguson says, "we are helping the students find a human side to science and medicine, disciplines that can be traditionally very dry and inhuman."


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