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Students Share Stories of Their Paths to Pursue Medical Science

From left: Students Erica Wright, Maria Guerra Garcia, Haleemat Adekoya, Sary Guerra, Zayne Callahan and Daniela Sedano pose for a photo with Vice Dean for Education Roy Ziegelstein and CARES Symposium keynote speaker Alicia Arbaje. Photo by Rafael Leon.

Born with spina bifida in a society that shuns disabilities, Zayne Callahan lingered for seven years in the basement of an orphanage in China before a chance encounter resulted in adoption.

Bullied so harshly in middle school that she retaliated by becoming a bully herself, Haleemat Adekoya knew she had gone too far when her parents threatened to send her to live with family back in Nigeria.

Left behind at age 5 in Honduras with a relative who would physically and emotionally abuse her, Sary Guerra is poised to become the first in her family to graduate from high school.

Guerra dreams of getting her bachelor’s degree, going to medical school and becoming a rheumatologist. Callahan is on a path to become a pediatrician, and Adekoya wants to be a child psychologist and open a center for lost youth.

They were three of six students chosen from more than 200 participants to share their life stories at the fifth annual Johns Hopkins CARES Symposium on July 26 in the Armstrong Medical Education Building. Thousands apply for CARES (Career, Academic and Research Experiences for Students), a network of programs that provide paid internships and educational opportunities across the medical campus to Baltimore area high school students, along with undergraduate and graduate students from around the country.

More than 100 faculty members serve as mentors to the students who share a desire to pursue careers in medicine or research. For many of the high school students, CARES is an opportunity to land a fruitful summer job with exposure to careers and mentors in the medical sciences, said Gerri Cole, program manager in the Office of Student Pipeline Programs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Many of the high school programs are two years, so the first year they are learning about different lab skills and shadowing a mentor, and the second year they are actually in labs doing the work,” said Cole, noting that a goal is to generate a homegrown workforce and improve the likelihood that local students will pursue careers in science, public health or medicine.

CARES encompasses 18 programs, including the Medical Education Resources Initiative for Teens (MERIT) Health Leadership Academy, the Basic Science Institute summer internship program at Johns Hopkins, and the Johns Hopkins Centro SOL Programa de Verano para Jóvenes. During the symposium, students deliver professional presentations to an audience of more than 350 attendees, bolster their academic and social confidence, and share their journeys, struggles and lessons learned in achieving their dreams while inspiring a generation of future leaders.

Poster Sessions Showcase Summer Accomplishments

Nicole Felix Velez, a junior at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, landed a coveted spot at the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. She was one of more than 200 students selected to showcase their summer work in one of two poster sessions attended by faculty members at Johns Hopkins and other local colleges and universities, as well as recruiters.

Felix Velez’s poster, titled “Murine Kidney-on-a-Chip Model for Polycystic Kidney Disease,” showed how studying cells of polycystic kidney disease (a common genetic disorder identified by the growth of cysts in the kidneys) may lead to development of treatments. “What was amazing about this experience was that I was able to work with a microfluidic device that my mentor made himself in order to measure and study this disease,” said Velez.

Nicole Felix Velez, a junior at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, discusses her poster with Jawara Allen, an M.D./Ph.D. student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Photo by Rafael Leon.
Nicole Felix Velez, a junior at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, discusses her poster with Jawara Allen, an M.D./Ph.D. student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Photo by Rafael Leon.

Tips on Developing an Authentic Path in Life

The symposium’s keynote speaker was geriatrician Alicia Arbaje, director of transitional care research at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. The daughter of first generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Arbaje shared her story of growing up in a small Kansas town where she developed a close relationship with her grandmother, who suffered from heart failure. “My grandmother was in and out of the hospital a lot and the nearest hospital was 30 miles away,” said Arbaje, noting how this experience exposed her to the dangers inherent in the health care system as patients move between hospital discharge to home and readmission to the hospital.  

“My grandmother upheld the traditions of my family. She is the reason I am who I am today,” said Arbaje. “I keep a photo of her and it is with me in my mind all the time. Whenever I am faced with an important decision or opportunity, I look at my grandmother and ask myself, ‘What would honor her legacy?’”

Arbaje suggested that the students create similar pictures to help develop “an authentic path” in life. “Does your next decision honor the image you have in your photo?” she asked.

To be authentic, the students need to first understand themselves and what they are passionate about; second, figure out their long-term goals; and third, decide on their short-term goals, said Arbaje.

“Everyone has their own path, and the only way to know if your path is the one that makes sense is if it is authentic,” she said. “Remember that picture, remember that passion and remember to check in with it over time. Maybe you need to change it, and that’s OK. Birthdays are a good time to check in. So is New Year’s Day.”

Students Share Their Own Authentic Stories

Callahan, Adekoya and Guerra, together with fellow students Erica Wright, Maria Guerra Garcia and Daniela Sedano, each shared an intensely personal story of overcoming adversity and developing a path of authenticity. (Click here to watch a video of the full morning presentation.)

Wright, a student at Baltimore City College, led with a presentation worthy of a TED Talk. She opened with: “I’m a normal girl. I spend my days obsessing over my cat and (musician) James Bay. I love vanilla ice cream and spring days.” She then shared intimate details of her five-year struggle to overcome depression, a struggle that allowed her to create an arts program that she takes to middle schools to help explore mental health issues with young students. Wright’s future plans include becoming a veterinarian and opening her own practice.

Guerra Garcia, an undergraduate at the University of Texas at San Antonio who was struck with gastric non-Hodgkin lymphoma at age 5, spoke of the turmoil in her young life as she underwent treatment while enduring the traumatic impact of schoolyard bullying and gangs in her native Mexico. After immigrating with her family to the U.S., she taught herself English by becoming an avid reader. “Books made me feel powerful and gave me courage,” she said. While involved in a nonprofit organization, a chance encounter with a young patient led Guerra Garcia to the decision to become a medical scientist and help find a cure for cancer.

Sedano, a student at the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology high school, spoke of the difficulties she experienced taking care of her Spanish-speaking grandparents. At age 10 she became the sole caregiver to her grandmother, who struggled with type 2 diabetes and later stomach cancer, and her grandfather who suffered with Alzheimer’s disease. Sedano’s studies faltered as she would often need time off from school to take her grandparents to doctor appointments because they trusted only her to be their primary interpreter. As she looks back now she doesn’t see being forced to grow up fast at such a young age as a burden, but instead as the gift that turned her into the “curious and responsible” woman she is today.

“The opportunity to be exposed to these diseases at such a young age is what pushed me further to pursue a career in medicine,” said Sedano. “Thanks to my family, I was able to find what I want to pursue in the future, either neurology because of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s or geriatrics because of my grandmother. I also want to increase the number of bilingual physicians in Baltimore so that other kids don’t have to miss out on their childhood in order to be interpreters for their families.”

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