In a Chicago eighth-grade science classroom, Natalie Guerrero did something that would jump-start her academic life and put her on a direct course with her future career. She raised her hand.
"My teacher asked if anyone was interested in medicine, and I was," said Guerrero, who was hearing for the first time about the Temple University Physician Scientist Training Program. "It sounded pretty good to me, so I sent in the application, took a test, interviewed and was offered a spot."
Guerrero, who just graduated high school, is one of six students from the program who are spending the summer in Hutchinson Center labs. Guerrero is working in Dr. Barbara Trask's lab in the Human Biology Division, but students are also working with scientists in the Clinical Research and Basic Sciences divisions.
Each year, about 30 students from all over the country gain entry into the rigorous program after a battery of tests and interviews. The program was founded in 1985 with the goal of creating a science pipeline to increase diversity among scientists in biomedical research careers. While this is the first year that the Center has hosted the students, Dr. Wendy Law of the Public Health Sciences Division said the program is a natural fit.
Building a community of mentors
Since 2000, Law has been chairing the Minority Scientist Recruitment and Retention Coalition on campus. "The idea behind it is to get people who have programs on campus that are serving underrepresented scientists to talk to each other and build a community of research mentors," Law said. "We've been networking with a lot of different groups around Seattle and University of Washington, but we're also talking to nationally based groups as well."
Eighteen years after its inception, the program at Temple has grown into the nation's largest and most diverse biomedical research-training program for students. Recruited in junior-high school, the students spend every subsequent summer through their undergraduate career interning in labs around the country. The concept draws from the sports-training model for elite athletics.
The Olympic model
"In sports, and especially the Olympics, our nation creates champions by identifying the kids early and giving them a place to develop their skills. At the end of it, we have Olympic champions, evidenced by the high medal count for the United States in recent history," Law said, paraphrasing Dr. Moses Williams, the director of the Temple program. "By taking the same approach with kids who have abilities in science, we are developing our champions within science."
The Center's affiliation with the program is a win-win for both the students and the Center, Law said. The National Institutes of Health and various pharmaceutical companies jointly sponsor the students, so the labs that have taken a Temple intern this year do not have to pay their stipends. Also, the students come fully trained; all have portfolios and letters of recommendations from labs where they've previously worked. With such exceptional students, many hope the exposure to the Center will encourage them to come back for graduate or postdoctoral training, or even as faculty someday.
"It's wonderful to have an opportunity to host such a bright, young student who has shown an early interest in science," Trask said. "By placing their select students in Center laboratories, Temple has given us the opportunity to help recruit underrepresented minorities into careers in research. I hope that Natalie and other Temple-program students will find the work and the interactions with practicing scientists in our labs stimulating, interesting and fun so the experience will reinforce their aspirations to become biomedical research scientists."
For Guerrero, the program has done just that. "Before going into this program, I was interested in medicine, but I really didn't know much about the research arena or what you had to do to get there," Guerrero said. "This has exposed me to so much so quickly."
Some studies have indicated that interest in the sciences is equal among students of color and whites upon college admission; however, attrition rates are greater among the students of color. This amounts to fewer students of color graduating in the sciences, and even fewer who reach the faculty level. Temple's program is helping to address that — the retention rate is close to 95 percent.
"Because we know that the most creative research that's out there is interdisciplinary and really draws on a lot of different fields and backgrounds, having that lack of diversity in our scientific staff would probably slow down research," Law said. "This group really does come from very different backgrounds, which is exciting. And they're incredibly devoted. They started this program when they were 12 or 13, and they've put their whole heart into it. They really know what they want to do, and they're going after it."
All of the students at the Center this year are between high school and their freshman year of college; but they already have some impressive work behind them. Last summer, Guerrero and her peers were at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. Next year, they will go to labs in Canada, with the promise of being placed in labs in Rome or Tokyo the year after that.
Aside from being promising young scientists, the students excel in other areas. Guerrero was part of a nationally recognized high-school choir and played the violin. Sports also play an important role — she was a volleyball player and captain of her softball team. Guerrero recently completed the Chicago half-marathon and is training to run a full marathon in April. She is also practices the Baha'i religion, which places service to humanity as paramount; that commitment has played an important role in her work. "The way that I can best serve humanity is through medicine," Guerrero said. "I have a good understanding of it, and I've been exposed to enough to know that I enjoy it."
This fall, Guerrero will head off to Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., where she plans to study neuroscience while working on premedical requirements. The laboratory experience she takes with her has cemented the commitment she made in that junior-high classroom. "As an eighth grader, I was sure then that I wanted to be in medicine, and after all my experiences, I'm even more sure now."