Creating Community Health Leaders

The MERIT program helps Baltimore teens prepare for medical careers.

Published in Dome - September 2015

When he was 8, Kahlid Fowlkes stood on a Baltimore street and watched in horror as a family friend was fatally shot in the head. At age 15, he stood in an operating room at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and witnessed lifesaving surgery as doctors removed a tumor from a patient’s brain.

After the shooting, Fowlkes says, his grades suffered. But in eighth grade, he got serious about academics and placed at the top of his class. 

Fowlkes, now 16 and a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, is planning a future as a trauma surgeon. He credits MERIT, the Medical Education Resources Initiative for Teens, with helping him reach his potential. “It opened up doors and opportunities,” says Fowlkes.

This summer, MERIT placed him in a Johns Hopkins neurology lab, where he dissected mice for research on autism and other nervous system disorders. He’s learning leadership and public speaking skills. And his essay about his experiences with MERIT helped him win a $40,000 Henrietta Lacks Dunbar Health Sciences Scholarship, established by Johns Hopkins in 2011. 

The rigorous and competitive MERIT program, created five years ago by Johns Hopkins medical students Tyler Mains and Mark Wilcox, accepts sophomores from high schools throughout Baltimore. MERIT Scholars devote summers and school-year Saturdays to activities that prepare them for health careers. They shadow professionals, work in research labs, study health disparities, prepare for the SATs and learn leadership skills.

To make all this possible, MERIT, which counts Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as its two largest partners, relies on about 250 volunteer health care workers, educators and scientists across the city, says Mains.

This year, 80 students applied for 20 spots, says Mains. The successful applicants don’t necessarily have the highest grades, he says, but they must demonstrate that they are professional, organized, motivated, calm under pressure and concerned about health care disparities. 

Mains and Wilcox were instructors with Teach for America when they started MERIT to address two trends they witnessed in Baltimore: students lacking academic guidance, and families using emergency rooms as their primary source of health care. MERIT can solve both problems, says Mains, by helping teens become health care leaders in their communities. 

The founders enlisted Richard Bennett, president of Hopkins Bayview, and David Hellmann, director of the Department of Medicine at the medical center. The executives joined MERIT’s advisory board and created internships and learning opportunities funded through Hopkins Bayview.  

“We’re trying to identify people who, with structured mentorship and training, could emerge as physicians and scientists,” says Bennett, who notes that between MERIT and other programs, Hopkins Bayview provides about 50 internships per summer to Baltimore high school students. 

One July day, a classroom in the Anne and Mike Armstrong Medical Education Building contained 20 rising juniors, MERIT Scholars working in groups to analyze causes of health disparities. Lateshia Scott, 16, of Western High School, was helping develop a public education campaign called Keep Your Cup Size to bring information about early breast cancer detection techniques to low-income communities.

Scott wants to be an intensive care pediatrician, a career choice confirmed when she went on Grand Rounds in the pediatric intensive care unit at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. “To be able to say you’ve changed somebody’s life is amazing,” she says. 

Rising senior Savannah Tripp was in a Johns Hopkins Hospital lab, learning how to place prostate cancer cells on a slide, color them with dye and analyze what happens when they are exposed to a potential treatment. She praises her mentor, pharmacology graduate student Oliver Rogers, for providing meaningful work. “He doesn’t just show me stuff; he lets me do it,” the 17-year-old Western High School senior says.

Tripp plans to become a sports medicine doctor. “I like to help people, and I’m good at science,” she says. “If it weren’t for MERIT, I don’t think I would be as on track.”