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Gift of Science, Gift of Self

Stephanie Keyaka
Stephanie Keyaka

June 2013Before Stephanie Keyaka, then a rising high school sophomore, came to Johns Hopkins for a summer of research, she thought scientists were “strict, mean and all cooped-up.” Instead, she found that Johns Hopkins scientists are “down-to-earth and look just like everyone else walking down the street.” That’s high praise!

For most people, professional accolades are just one of the yard sticks by which they measure their lives. Another is the people whose lives they’ve touched: their families, their communities and young women like Stephanie, who grew up in the Johns Hopkins neighborhood but thought of our institution as far removed from her own life.

Doug Robinson, a professor of cell biology here at the school of medicine, was looking for a way to give back to those outside the “ivory tower” of academia. He and his family started volunteering their time at the Boys Hope Girls Hope (BHGH) home in east Baltimore, which provides family-like homes to children whose home lives do not give them the stability they need to reach their full potential. “Scholars,” as the young men and women are called, are held to high standards academically, morally and even financially—they must find summer jobs and put two-thirds of their income into college savings.

When Robinson and his family began bringing suppers to the BHGH home on Sundays and eating with the scholars, there was only one BHGH home in Baltimore, housing seven to eight boys ages 13 to 18. (The girls’ home would be constructed later, in 2010, by none other than ABC’s Extreme Makeover Home Edition, and Robinson, his family and his lab members were there to help.)

Robinson started tutoring some of the BHGH scholars and realized that some of them had a real aptitude and appreciation for textbook science but no idea how real science is conducted. “We are in a field that provides an important service to the community,” he says, “but young people often aren’t exposed to that side of science and don’t get inspired.”

He talked to his lab members about hosting some students for a summer internship. Everyone was enthusiastic about the idea and helped him flesh out a plan, especially Cathryn “Cathy” Kabacoff, a technician in the lab. She had previously been a teacher for the fourth and eighth grades and was excited to have the opportunity to work with young students again.

For four years now, the Robinson lab and several others here have been providing promising high school students from the Johns Hopkins’ neighborhood with a unique opportunity to don some gloves and work at a lab bench while improving their math and reading skills. It’s called the Summer Academic Research Experience, or SARE.

Robinson secured initial funds from the Institute for NanoBioTechnology and the school of medicine and invited two BHGH boys to Johns Hopkins the following summer. The program’s fifth summer session begins June 24 with five more scholars, young men and women from BHGH, and now The SEED School of Maryland and The Crossroads School, too. By all accounts, the program is working wonders.

A Day in the Life of a SARE Scholar

A typical SARE day begins with all of the scholars together for an hour-and-a-half of reading, writing and math classes. So far, with no more than five scholars in a single summer, these classes are highly personalized and that will continue even if the program finds the funding it needs to expand to the 10 to 15 students that Robinson hopes to bring in each summer.

“Customizing their learning is a really important part of why SARE works so well,” says Vasudha Srivastava, a graduate student and SARE math teacher. In fact, Robinson brags that Cathy Kabacoff, their reading and writing instructor, “can improve most scholars’ reading by two grade levels in one summer.”

After doing their morning mental calisthenics, scholars pair up with their research mentors—postdocs or graduate students who have volunteered to be their guides for the summer. This is where the scholars get to learn all sorts of experimental techniques with big names like fast protein liquid chromatography. This year, their work will contribute to projects in fields like tissue engineering and cancer biology.

Hoku West-Foyle, a graduate student in the Robinson lab, will be mentoring his third student this summer. He says he likes knowing he’s part of the solution and he finds that training SARE scholars forces him to become a better scientist, too. “It gives me a clearer vision of what I wish to accomplish in my research and how best to get there,” he says.

Stellar Scholars

So far, eight scholars have come through the program and several have come back for a second, and even third, summer.

“These kids have already beaten the odds, but they still have more to accomplish to reach their full potential,” says Robinson. “They have to stretch to meet standards of professional behavior and academic achievement, but they work really hard to get there.”

Dwayne Thomas
Dwayne Thomas

One such scholar was Dwayne Thomas. He grew up 10 blocks north of the hospital and moved into BHGH when he was 11 while his mother was in transitional housing. At 16, aspiring to become a doctor, he joined the Robinson lab for the second summer of SARE.

It wasn’t easy. He says that Alexandra Surcel, his postdoctoral mentor, usually answered his questions with, “Have you looked it up yet?”

Surcel says that this tough-love approach helps to mold them into independent workers who can really celebrate their accomplishments as their own. “You should see them beam while they present their research in a poster session at the end of the summer,” she says.

The mentors and teachers also review the progress of each student every two weeks and give them honest feedback about everything from their academics to their attitude.

During Dwayne’s second summer at SARE, he disrespected one of his teachers and was nearly shown the door because he wasn’t willing to apologize. But through that incident, he says, he recognized his mentors’ profound dedication to him.

“SARE also helped open up many other doors that I did not know about and did not think were possible,” he says. Now a rising junior biology and Spanish major at Loyola University Maryland, he has a third summer of research under his belt—this time through a highly competitive program at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. And he sees a Ph.D. in his future—in addition to an M.D.

Teamwork

SARE doesn’t just touch the lives of scholars; it also changes the labs that host them. So far, six lab communities have participated in addition to Robinson’s: those of Peter Devreotes (professor of cell biology), Alex Kolodkin (professor of neuroscience), Carolyn Machamer (professor of cell biology), Craig Montell (former professor of biological chemistry), Caren Myers (assistant professor of pharmacology) and Sean Taverna (assistant professor of pharmacology).

Does it detract from their research? Robinson believes it does the contrary. “We don’t do one at the expense of the other,” he says. “We do them side by side.” He believes hosting SARE student enhances the labs’ productivity by focusing everyone in the lab and by giving them an additional reward for doing great science.

Surcel agrees. “SARE is set up, in part, to remind mentors of the great need to invest in making science accessible to others, and it is always a pleasant surprise to realize at the end of the summer that we have learned from [the scholars] again, that teaching enriches our own understanding of our work and of our place in the larger Baltimore community. It is a feeling of immense hope.”

Robinson hopes that the program will continue to expand here at Johns Hopkins and eventually spill over to other universities. To that end, he and his team have written an academic paper describing their experience, which will soon be published in the journal CBE Life Sciences Education. “All it takes is some money and some passionate people,” he says.

—Catherine Kolf

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