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A Rare Specimen
How one student intern educated 400 teens about HPV

Cytotechnologist Nicole Thomas

Day after day, when Nicole Thomas looked into the microscope studying Pap smears, she didn’t just see tiny cellular specimens. She saw the big picture: widespread ignorance about one of the most common sexually transmitted viral infections in the world, human papilloma virus.

Thomas was training to be a cytotechnologist—someone who examines human cellular specimens to detect cancer, pre-malignant lesions, benign reactions and infectious processes—when she discovered that 77 percent of high school and college students know nothing about HPV, the infection she saw so routinely. She resolved to do something about it. She asked her educational coordinator, Fran Burroughs, and Doug Clark, cytopathology director, for permission to lecture local high school students about HPV.

It was the first time in the program’s 47 years someone had asked to do community outreach. “I was thrilled,” Burroughs says. Thomas sent introductory letters to Baltimore City public schools, and five responded. Her presentations and observations would become part of a required final written project.

HPV strikes three out of four Americans ages 15 to 49 at some point in their lives. It rarely causes symptoms (the most common are genital warts), and most infections resolve spontaneously. A small fraction, however, develop into cervical cancer.

In all, Thomas spoke about HPV to some 400 students at the five schools. Almost every time she lectured, Thomas had to endure rowdiness and smirks. But when she showed the students a photo of an HPV wart on the mouth, she got their attention. “I like to scare them a little first,” Thomas says. Because the only screening tools for HPV are Pap smears, Thomas stressed to girls the importance of having them regularly as adults or sooner, if they’re sexually active. She also told them that the best insurance against HPV is abstinence, as the virus can live in the cells of the outer skin and thus elude safe sex practices.

It was because she’d been inspired by Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands, the pediatric neurosurgeon’s autobiography describing the challenges faced by a black American growing up in the inner city, that Thomas, a 25-year-old Chicago native, had put the Hopkins post-baccalaureate program in clinical cytotechnology at the top of her list. The program is one of the oldest in the nation and attracts students from all over the world. Now, as a graduate, Thomas plans to continue doing outreach in Chicago, where she hopes to soon find a job in a cytopathology lab and possibly pursue a career in community health.

Meanwhile, Burroughs and Clark are thankful for Thomas’s trail-blazing during her stint with four other interns here. Says Burroughs: “I hope successive classes will be inspired to carry the community banner.”

—Judy Minkove



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