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Launching minority students in the sciences

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When Tyren Day found success in a biology class at a city high school, he began to fix on the idea of going to college and becoming a scientist.

But for a low-income student from a minority group that is under-represented in the sciences, statistics show the odds were long.

"Where I come from, you don't see too many kids say, 'I want to be a scientist,'" Day said.

It was students such as Day who inspired two city teachers to create MERIT, a program that provides the intensive academic support and mentoring that could enable them to become scientists.

Day, 18, is getting hands-on experience at a biophysics laboratory at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine after completing his first year at the Community College of Baltimore County.

Mark Wilcox and Tyler Mains, who came to Baltimore in 2009 as Teach for America teachers, have helped nearly two dozen low-income students from under-represented minority groups begin to compete with students from more-privileged backgrounds.

Since starting MERIT, Wilcox and Mains have completed their two-year Teach for America commitments and are studying medicine at Hopkins.

"If we are working to solve health issues facing low-income communities, it would be wonderful to have someone from one of those communities," Wilcox said.

As the nation works to address health disparities among ethnic and socio-economic groups, public health professionals have identified a need for more physicians and scientists from those communities.

Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population, but only 6 percent of the nation's physicians. Of those who aspire to obtain a bachelor's degree in the sciences, only 16 percent of Hispanics and 13 percent of blacks complete the requirements within four years, according to the Higher Education Research Institute.

Universities such as Hopkins are using internships, summer training and other programs to draw candidates into the field.

MERIT, or Medical Education Resources Initiative for Teens, is open to all Baltimore public high school students, Wilcox said. Another program, Biophysics Research for Baltimore Teens, continues helping students after high school.

Through BRBT, students are paired with a Hopkins professor, a graduate student and an undergraduate student mentor, and students are given paid summer internships in Hopkins biophysics labs.

During the summer program, five graduate students teach the BRBT students basic science — biology, physics and chemistry — and lab techniques. Participants then do high-level science with their graduate student mentors and also work on their own projects.

"We see them as key players in helping to reduce health disparities," Wilcox said.

Day, who is in his second summer in the BRBT program, said he felt overwhelmed at first, but learned to take everything one step at a time.

"It was so much information," he said.

Now he is working to make proteins under the mentorship of Joseph "JD" Schonhoft, a Hopkins graduate student in pharmacology and molecular sciences.

Schonhoft said he has been learning from Day. Used to creating eight-week science experiments for graduate students, he said, he had to slow the pace for Day, who doesn't have the same background.

"He is very curious. He is very interested in whatever we are doing," Schonhoft said.

Day intends to major in chemistry and hopes to finish his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County before moving on to graduate school. He said he plans a career in scientific research.

BRBT head Dr. Jungsan Sohn, an assistant professor of biophysics and biophysical chemistry at the medical school, said the program takes a holistic approach to the students' training: While participants take classes, they also are working on research that has not been done before.

"That is something that we want them to take away," Sohn said.

At the beginning of the summer, he said, he told them he expects their relationships with his Hopkins lab to last.

"We tell them from Day One ... 'This is your lifelong relationship,'" he said. "We want to know how these kids progress through their careers."

Universities around the country have created programs to give students from under-represented minority groups a boost into the science field and hands-on lab experience.

Bill LaCourse, dean of UMBC's College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, is studying ways to open a pipeline for students to get into advanced work.

"Once we get them here, how do you keep them here?" he asked. "How do we get them some special attributes to be successful?" "We understand that pipeline reaches deep into the high schools."

Students who come to college unprepared often need remediation, he said. UMBC has decided to change the approach of throwing 800 students into an introductory science class to let everyone sink or swim, he said, because too many were sinking.

Today, LaCourse said, the school works to ensure that students feel more supported and have a small community of fellow students to turn to for help.

The Hopkins program sprang from the experience of Mains and Wilcox, who saw a need as Teach for America teachers and found scientists at Hopkins willing to help. Now they are trying to juggle their volunteer efforts with MERIT around busy medical school schedules.

Wilcox recalled a student who stood out for her ambition and interest in science. She wanted to be a cardiologist but had poor academic skills and was so ill-informed that she thought she could go to medical school straight out of high school.

She had "the most successful spirit but no tools or support," he said.

She completed the MERIT program and is now studying at Goucher College. Ten high school sophomores are chosen each year for MERIT to spend three to five hours every Saturday together developing academic skills and preparing for the SAT. In their first summer, they earn the minimum wage as interns at the Hopkins Bayview campus, where they observe clinical care and come into contact with nurses, doctors, social workers and technicians.

They spend their second summer in a lab at Hopkins. After graduating from high school and enrolling in college, they can go on to the BRBT program.

Wilcox said the work of MERIT in Baltimore alone will not be enough to raise the percentage of physicians who come from under-represented communities. He and Mains hope to develop a model program that can be expanded into other cities.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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