People with fewer resources, who are economically disadvantaged, are far less likely to become biomedical scientists. The Johns Hopkins Initiative for Careers in Science and Medicine is working to change these odds.
Under the leadership of Douglas Robinson, Ph.D., professor of cell biology, the initiative hosts the Summer Academic Research Experience, or SARE, to expose high school students from low-income and diverse backgrounds to biomedical research and prepare them early on for a career in science and medicine. Since its inaugural class in 2010, 92% of SARE Scholars have enrolled in four-year college programs and 59% have chosen STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors.
In a Q&A, SARE Scholars Thinzar Htwe, Jasmine Burrell and Dwayne Thomas provided their thoughts on barriers to entering STEM fields, the importance of SARE in preparing them, and their hopes for the future.
First, tell me about yourself.
Htwe: I am a senior at Eastern Technical High School.
Burrell: I am a junior at the University of Maryland and I am majoring in biochemistry.
Thomas: I grew up in inner city East Baltimore, less than a mile from the Johns Hopkins medical campus. I attended Loyola Blakefield high school, then went on to attend Loyola University Maryland. Currently, I am conducting pancreatic cancer research under the mentorship of assistant professor Dr. Elizabeth Thompson and associate professor Dr. Lei Zheng in the departments of pathology and oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Were you always interested in science and medicine?
Htwe: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in science and medicine.
Burrell: Growing up, I had some interest in science and medicine but not in the way I do now. Originally, I wanted to be a doctor. At SARE, I learned that being in the lab allows you to work at your own pace. I loved learning something new with every experiment. This made me more interested in scientific research.
Thomas: Ever since I can remember, I have always been interested in medicine. I remember driving through downtown Baltimore, with my long-time mentor, when I was younger and telling her of my career aspirations of wanting to become a pediatrician.
Are there any barriers that you or your peers have experienced when trying to gain more experience in the field?
Htwe: It was hard for my family to navigate the school systems here in America, because we emigrated from Burma when I was 5. As the oldest, I was the first of my siblings to go through the school system. My parents had to use me as a guinea pig, so it felt like I went through school blindly. The hardest part was that I had a desire to learn more about science and medicine but I didn’t know where to start.
As I got older, I was lucky enough to meet people in school who have given me some guidance, but that uncertainty doesn’t go away. Even now, I am nervous about going to college next year. My parents didn’t go to college here so I don’t know what to expect.
Burrell: Before SARE I wasn’t a critical thinker, which made it harder to understand science and harder to approach the field. I wasn’t very good at the basics we needed to understand science, like math. My SARE mentors took the time to help me get better. They made sure all of us knew the basic math, science and English that we needed to succeed. No matter the barrier, being connected with Hopkins through SARE and having the mentors as a network and family lowers the chances of barriers getting in our way.
Thomas: One of the barriers that I faced was a lack of knowledge of resources and opportunities that could help me gain exposure and experience. When searching for undergraduate summer research experiences, I searched multiple websites to find an opportunity that sparked my interest. If academic institutions make their research programs more apparent and available, I believe more students would apply and take advantage of opportunities that allow them to gain more experience in the field of biomedical research.
So, how did you hear about an opportunity to join a lab at Johns Hopkins?
Htwe: I was encouraged by my high school mentor. I value her advice because she is also an immigrant and we’re close in age. She was one of the first people at my school to do research. One day she told me that I should think about joining a lab because I learn a lot of textbook science but never have a chance to apply it.
Following her advice, I started volunteering at Bayview doing patient transport so that I could learn the inner-workings of a hospital. After my first year in patient transport, I started volunteering in the ambulatory surgery unit. I connected with some of the surgeons and they would allow me to shadow them in the operating room. After my experiences in the operating room, I decided to apply for SARE.
Burrell: We had a liaison at my school, Green Street Academy, who knew Doug [Robinson], and he picked a couple of us to interview for the program. After I was selected, I researched the program and my mentor, Erin Goley. I was super excited to learn more about what she does.
Thomas: I heard about SARE through Boys Hope Girls Hope Baltimore — a nonprofit organization that helps inner city youth achieve their full potential by providing various resources and opportunities — where Dr. Robinson served as a mentor to another one of the scholars.
How was your experience at SARE?
Htwe: Before I started the program, I was a little nervous and I didn’t have a lot of confidence because I saw Johns Hopkins as an environment where everyone is amazing at what they do. I had a bit of an inferiority complex because I was just a high school student. When I got to SARE and saw how many students were just like me, it changed my perspective.
I learned so much by attending lab meetings and talking with my mentor, Doug Robinson, but I didn’t realize how much I learned until I went back to school. For example, my public speaking skills were much better and I excelled in my classes. At SARE, we were learning at a graduate level, we were completely engrossed in academics, so learning at a high school level was easy. I learned how to be more confident in a self-nurturing way by telling myself, “I can do it,” and I think that motivation will keep me going throughout my education.
Robinson presents Htwe (second from left) with certificates at 2019 SARE poster session
Burrell: SARE was mind-blowing. I went from being in a Baltimore City public school classroom learning at a fundamental level to being in a lab helping to make scientific discoveries. I grew tremendously from the experience. Presenting in front of large crowds at symposiums helped improve my public speaking. My biggest takeaway, however, was how much science the public does not understand. As researchers, we use big, meaningful words, but what good is it if the public doesn’t understand them? That is something that I have taken with me to this day.
Thomas: I had a great SARE experience. For two summers, I worked with Dr. Robinson, Dr. Alexandra Surcel and Dr. Hoku West-Foyle in the Department of Cell Biology. Under their mentorship, I investigated how amoeba and single-celled organisms move and grow.
During this experience, I learned fundamental laboratory techniques and how to conduct scientific research in a professional setting. These were rewarding experiences to learn how to address and accept experimental failures. Reexamining each step of the procedures taught me how to persevere and be resilient in the face of adversity.
Do you think SARE has helped you prepare for the future?
Htwe: Absolutely! One thing that I really liked about SARE, and that sets it apart from other academic programs that I have been in, is that it is very structured. There were several sessions planned for us to meet different scientists and hear how they became researchers, but in a casual way. For example, I really liked our lunch and learn with Bertrand García-Moreno, where he told us about how he became a Ph.D. You just don’t get that anywhere else.
I still keep in touch with everyone I met — researchers, SARE Scholars, even technicians — and they’ve been helping me decide what to do next. If I ever have a question, there is always someone at Hopkins to help.
Burrell: It is indescribable how much the SARE program has impacted my future. I may not have gone to college if I didn’t go to SARE, and I definitely wouldn’t have majored in biochemistry. I still keep in contact with all of my mentors. Doug has even taken the time to help me get financial aid so that I can stay in college. I can’t imagine finding that support anywhere else.
Burrell (right) presents her research
Thomas: Yes, the SARE mentors were extremely helpful in providing career guidance and advice. At times, we had tough conversations, but ultimately it was beneficial for me to hear their wisdom. They assisted with abstract writing, practice sessions for presenting my research, and they provided advice for my career aspirations.
So, what’s next for you?
Htwe: Right now, I am working on college applications. Wherever I go, I want to major in one of the sciences, then hopefully go on to a graduate program. I used to only want to be a doctor, but SARE opened up a whole new world of possibilities. I might become a Ph.D. and an M.D. I want to take the next four years to find out exactly what I like.
Burrell: In the future, I want to pursue a Ph.D., but right now, I am very focused on graduating from college.
Thomas: My next stop is medical school. I am applying to medical schools this current cycle for admission into the class of 2024. I am excited to open many more doors of opportunity in the next chapter of my life!