Cohen Croslin wore a white lab coat and held a clipboard, prepared to pepper his prospective mentors with questions.
The 11-year-old student at the Southwest Baltimore Charter School was interviewing potential candidates to help him pursue a career in engineering. He was one of 26 young scholars given a pressed lab coat and inducted Saturday into the University of Maryland, Baltimore CURE Scholars Program, which pairs middle-school students from West Baltimore with mentors working in the health or science fields.
The CURE program — short for Continuing the Umbrella for Research Experiences —not only aims to help children in West Baltimore schools succeed in science-related careers but also to promote diversity in those fields. Students meet twice a week with tutors after school and participate in weekly science activities such as dissecting a pig, building a rocket and conducting experiments.
Dr. Bret A. Hassel, a University of Maryland School of Medicine associate professor of microbiology and immunology who serves on CURE's leadership team, said the program tries to identify students with enthusiasm for science and help them excel in middle school, when some students begin to slip behind. High school is often too late to make sure students are college-ready for rigorous science majors, he said.
To find the CURE scholars, Hassel said, students write an essay, and their parents, teacher, and a school administrator write letters of recommendation, he said.
"Hopefully he'll link up with a people that will encourage him to think broader," said Cohen's mother, Stefanie Croslin, who, along with her husband, Carlos, attended Saturday's ceremony at the university's SMC Campus Center downtown.
Cohen said he's excited for the program.
"If soccer doesn't work out," he said, "I want to be an engineer."
He became interested in engineering after a fourth-grade competition to see which team could build the tallest structure with marshmallows and toothpicks.
"It had to be stable. We basically experimented with it," he said. "A lot of people didn't care about winning."
Cohen said his team experimented with several base options before finding a design that allowed them to build well above their classroom desks. They missed first place by a couple of inches.
The CURE program's mentors are mostly students from the university. The partnership not only helps the young scholars, but also their mentors by teaching them to become better physicians.
Dr. Robin Saunders, the program's executive director, recalled when a medical student from Nebraska had difficultly connecting with her student last year. Saunders encouraged the mentor to visit the student's home. There she saw some family sleeping on air mattresses, the near-empty fridge and the shoes thrown over the power lines for every person killed by violence in the area.
That allowed the mentor to better relate to the student, and understand the obstacles the student had to overcome, Saunders said.
Saunders started in her role just as Baltimore erupted into riots, she said. A colleague asked if she regretted taking the position but she recalled responding: "This is exactly why a program like this is necessary."
The program is free to families and funded by the National Cancer Institute, which recently increased funding for CURE for five years.
Saunders said 38 students are returning from last year and the program has a 98 percent retention rate.
Courtney Jacobs III returned to the program for his second year.
The 12-year-old from Edmondson Village said he wants to be a surgeon.
"I always liked science," Courtney said. "This program opened my eyes to the different careers that I could have."
He said he's enjoyed all the hands-on activities, like building a rocket.
His father, Courtney Jacobs, said the program has "definitely changed him. He's taken pride. It's definitely broadened his horizons. Especially in the city [where] you don't have those opportunities."