Faculty pitches in to promote science among teens

By Jim Barrett

Carolyn Miller could have become many things. Engineer. Chemist. Teacher. But in May, she becomes a physician.

She thanks her mentors at The University of Texas Health Science Center, where she began learning about medicine as a 14-year-old high school freshman. Miller was among the first to join the university's biomedical program, which is run in conjunction with the San Antonio Independent School District.

"I had decent grades, but I was undecided as to what career to choose. The biomedical program pushed me toward the medical sciences. I always liked math and science, but I might just as well have wound up in another field where I could have used math and science," Miller said.

The Health Science Center has a long-standing policy of encouraging young students in the sciences.

Dozens of faculty members at the Health Science Center work with high school and undergraduate students in formal and informal arrangements. The biomedical program is one of the largest, involving up to 100 students a year.

Miller joined the program when it started in 1981. Now she is going to become its first alumnus to become a physician. And she is graduating from the Health Science Center's own medical school.

Her success bucks a national trend. About 5 percent of high school sophomores who are interested in science careers ever earn their baccalaureate degree, and only 1 percent obtain their doctorate, according to the National Science Foundation.

Miller graduated from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth with a bachelor's degree in biology in 1990. She said her years of high school instruction at the Health Science Center helped her immensely.

"When I got to college, it gave me confidence," Miller said, referring to her experience in the biomedical program. "I was away from home, it was a whole new ball game. Everyone had a 4.0 GPA, but I knew I could do it. I had studied these things before."

All this delights Miguel Medina, PhD, pharmacology professor and associate dean of student affairs in the graduate school of biomedical sciences. Dr. Medina, founder of the biomedical program, and dozens of other volunteers from the Health Science Center are seeing the rewards from 12 years dedicated to helping high school students prepare for health professions.

Their goal is to encourage achievement among students with high potential. It seems to be working.

Seventy-seven students have completed the program, and all have gone onto the college with at least one scholarship each, Dr. Medina said. Three of the 77 are in medical school.

Vicky Taylor, who graduated from San Antonio's Fox Tech High School in 1988 and graduated as a biology major from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is in her first year of medical school at the Health Science Center.

Her high school classmate, Benito Marrufo, is a second-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Cornell University in New York.

"It opens doors for you when you go to college," Marrufo said. "The transcript shows that you have taken advanced courses such as microbiology and have a broad background in the sciences. I know it helped me."

In his senior year of high school, Marrufo worked with Russel J. Reiter, PhD, on research involving the pineal gland.

Dr. Medina said he started the program with the goal of helping students do well in school. He wanted to encourage them not to drop out and to show them what they could accomplish.

"The payoff to me is not just having the students stay in school, but having them go on to college," he said.

Dr. Medina and other volunteers confront a special problem because some students come from low-income families.

Students in the program are selected by their middle-school counselors. Work starts in the freshman year. They begin honors science classes at Fox Tech High School, and begin an escalating course of study with Health Science Center faculty. By the senior year, the students spend a half-day four days a week at the Health Science Center, usually in labs and under the direct supervision of a faculty member.

Rosemary Castro, a biomedical teacher at Fox Tech, said the professional setting and demand for quality work have an immediate effect on the students. "There's no time for immaturity, and if there is any, it quickly disappears," she said.

Many faculty members are mentors in less formal programs they often arrange themselves. One who has been widely acknowledged for his work is John F. Alderete, PhD, professor of microbiology. Since 1981, Dr. Alderete has worked on campus with more than 20 interns and fellows who have ranged from high school students to individuals engaged in post- doctoral work.

He also lectures to middle and high school students and undergraduate groups in Texas, New Mexico and states in the South.

Dr. Alderete said there is a shortage of scientists yet many talented students, particularly women and minorities, receive little encouragement to join the field.

He sees things changing, especially among those considering graduate school. "Inevitably, on every trip I make now, I receive a letter from someone who listened to my talk and wants to come work in my lab. Most of the time I hire that person, and that person becomes a star," he said.

Dr. Alderete received the Premio Encuentro, or Encounter Award, in 1992 from the Spanish-language television network Univision. Other recipients included baseball pitcher Fernando Valenzuela and the late Cesar Chavez. The award cited Alderete's contribution to science and technology.

The university matched Dr. Alderete's $10,000 award, allowing him in June to underwrite summer internships for four additional undergraduate students.

In a separate program last summer, the university's staff played host to 10 other undergraduate students who spent six weeks on projects to broaden their experience in science, health and medicine.

"We had students from Prairie View A&M, Texas Lutheran College, Baylor University, UT Austin, St. Philip's, UTSA and St. Mary's," said Daniel Chan, DMD, DDS, restorative dentistry, who supervised the program. More than 10 faculty members worked as mentors in the program, supported by the U.S. Education Department.

Also in the summer, six undergraduate students from three states conducted research projects under the direction of mentors from the Health Science Center The program is called SURF, short for Summer Undergraduate Research fellowships.

One fellow, Amanda Weitz of Angelo State University in San Angelo, worked in the Research Imaging Center with a graduate student. She measured gray and white matter in the brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

"I'm a physics major, but just recently decided to go into medicine," she said. "One of the applications of physics in medicine is MRI."

Other programs include:

A 10-week summer research apprentice program for high school minority students. The students receive a stipend. High school science teachers also visit the campus to do laboratory work, and learn new teaching techniques.

On 20 Saturdays a year, high school students visit for career discussions, vocabulary tests and other activities. Most of the students are Hispanic. The program is designed to encourage interest in health careers. It is sponsored by the Mexican American Physicians Association.