What do you picture when you think of a doctor or scientist?
We imagined that ninth graders at the Pelham Lab High School in the Bronx might see doctors and scientists as we do: altruistic, hard-working, smart, hip and even fun. We were wrong.
Instead, according to these students asked to draw their impressions, doctors had “brain juice” dripping from their ears and didn’t have time to do anything except work; scientists “lived in their lab coats”, had “frizzy hair”, and were described as “geeky, weird, and boring.”
That dreary impression illustrates why a diverse group of nine first-year Einstein students got together in 2013 to form EiSci, a group dedicated to encouraging local Bronx high school students to explore the sciences as a career.
Changing images and futures
We were all a bit shocked by the student drawings. We used the images as a conversation-starter. Did we appear at all like the drawings, we asked? They cautiously agreed that we did not, but in that moment we could see some of them had never considered that scientists could look anything different from their impressions. That doctors and scientists might actually look like us – or them.
Part of EiSci’s mission is to use research to help understand what’s driving only a dearth of minorities to pursue careers in science and medicine. We presented a literature search study earlier this year at the Columbia Teacher’s College Health Disparities Conference and Einstein’s Medical Student Research Forum.
Our research found that under representation was due to “aspirational disparities” for high school students living in these communities. The students we interviewed faced a number of high hurdles to a science career. The received inadequate or poor-quality college counseling and career guidance, had little access to career resources, had few academic support services, few scholarship opportunities and, last but not least, had no contact with medical or science role models.
Inspiring student aspirations
EiSci is using “aspirational education” to help address these challenges. This method exposes high school students to necessary resources, information and yes, living breathing medical students, Ph.D. students, doctors and scientists!
On a practical level, this means our volunteers lead personalized mentoring sessions and take students into Einstein classrooms and labs they might otherwise not have the chance to visit. EiSci also shows what it takes to realize career goals by matching student interests with scientific demonstrations.
For instance, we have conducted DNA extractions and solved fake crimes via fingerprint testing and even tested blood to determine its type.
Once we’ve sparked interest in medicine and science through creative examples, our medical and Ph.D. student volunteers each meet regularly with a high school mentee to reinforce the lessons learned.
EiSci is in its early days. While we’re short on results just yet, we’re definitely deep on passion and commitment. We are determined to change perceptions about the medical and scientific fields.
Rather than see roles filled by awkward disengaged brainiacs, we hope our students can envision the promise of science and medicine as consider their own futures.