New medical school enrichment course offers local high school students a taste of medicine

Summer pathways programs welcome students from nearby Rhode Island cities to Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School to find out what it’s like to pursue a career in medicine.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — School may be out for the summer, but for a group of local high school students, medical education is in full swing — at least for one special week.

Eighteen students from local high schools were offered the chance to experience life as a medical student as part of Week of Medicine, a new summer enrichment course hosted by the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University in partnership with Central Falls High School. As part of the July program, 10th and 11th graders participated in workshops that introduced them to careers in health, engaged in hands-on experiences in medicine and science, and received mentorship from medical school faculty and students.

At the start of the Week of Medicine, students were asked to write about what they hoped to get out of the program and to reflect on their own confidence and self-efficacy — in other words, could they someday see themselves studying medicine and working in the field?

The hope was that by the time they left, the answer to all of the above would be an enthusiastic yes.

“The goal of this pathways program is to take interested high school students, especially those who are members of groups that are underrepresented in medicine, and to expand their sense of what’s possible in terms of careers in health and medicine,” said Luckson Omoaregba, director of pathways programs at the Warren Alpert Medical School. “We want to help the students start down a path toward becoming future leaders in these professional fields. And just as importantly, we want them to have fun!”

Most students in the program — which is funded in part by the Rhode Island Department of Education and comes at no cost to families — come from groups that are underrepresented in medicine. Ten are from Central Falls; others are from Providence, Cumberland, Johnston and other towns in northern Rhode Island. Depending on their school, students may be able to earn course credit for completing the program.

The program hub was the Warren Alpert Medical School at 222 Richmond Street in Providence. Students, faculty and staff from the medical school guided the students through the building and also through their daily schedule. And because the medical school schedule is different from a typical university academic calendar, the high school students passed other medical students bounding up the stairs or bustling through the halls, heading to classes or exams.

Midway through the program, the students donned lab coats and surgical gloves in preparation for a trip to the school’s anatomy lab. The day’s lessons were intended to get right to the heart of the week’s theme: the cardiovascular system. The students would be learning about the anatomy and function of the heart and dissecting the hearts of sheep and pigs.

In the spotless lab, the students sat in groups at metal dissection tables. Dr. Joseph Diaz, associate dean for diversity and multicultural affairs at the medical school, talked to them about the connection between studying the human body and then, as a doctor, working to heal or fix it. 

“It’s really remarkable to see things in anatomy lab and then apply what you’ve learned to a physical exam or take into the operating room,” Diaz told the group. “Now, let’s share some hearts!”

Each group received their own formaldehyde-preserved organ. Diaz as well as two medical students and a Central Falls High School science teacher, Charlie Fisher, served as instructors, guiding the students through the dissection, encouraging closer examination, and demonstrating how the heart’s anatomy contributed to function.

None of the high school students balked; they leaned in, gloved hands open to receive the hearts. Several of the students from Central Falls had already participated in similar activities in an anatomy class at school. But this session brought the lesson to a new level.

After the students had spent some time with the animal hearts, Diaz invited them to observe how the organ fits into a human body — that of a cadaver that had been donated to medical education. The students watched silently as Diaz lifted the heart and indicated how different diseases and conditions can compromise an organ and a patient’s health.

“I’d dissected organs before in anatomy class,” said Rakiiya Browne, a rising 12th grader at Central Falls High School. “But as great as that experience was, after the lecture and discussion we had here, I feel like I more fully understand things.”

Browne said that she was drawn to the course because she’s interested in the medical field and saw this as an opportunity to explore her options and see what studying medicine was actually like.

Maribel Veiga, also a rising 12th grader from Central Falls, was pleased to learn the week’s theme.

“I know that I want to go into medicine — cardiology, specifically — so this experience means a lot to me,” Veiga said. “Some of my family members have had health problems, and I felt like I couldn’t solve them. That made me feel helpless. I want to become someone who knows how to solve these types of things, who can help people.”

That kind of attitude is what interested second-year Brown medical student Rachel Dumond in working as a mentor for Week of Medicine.

“I’m really interested in helping students who are underrepresented in medicine to reach their potential — that’s a particular interest of mine,” Dumond said. “I also want to help bring more underrepresented students into medical education. So this is the perfect program to start doing that, and to start making those connections.”

After washing up from the session, the students broke for lunch and then rejoined their mentors to learn the basics of a simple check-up — for example, taking a patient history and vital signs.

Another workshop included case studies in which participants took patient histories from medical students role-playing as patients with medical issues. The program concluded with a poster presentation session, a common activity in graduate and medical school, in which the high school students presented something they learned during their experience.

Throughout the week, Omoaregba engaged the students in discussions about their post-high school plans.

“Med school might be the ultimate goal, but first, you need to know how to get into and succeed in college, so college access will be a big part of our focus,” he said.

A network of pathways

Week of Medicine fits into a network of educational and professional pathways programs organized by the Warren Alpert Medical School.

The course is meant to sync up with SMART Plus, a brand-new pathways program centered around a SMART health and wellness clinic that will open in the Central Falls School District at the start of the next school year. In close partnership with the Central Falls School District, medical school faculty, including Diaz, and students will be involved with the clinic and will also participate in educational programming that teaches students about careers in health and medicine.

Separately, HealthCORE, led and facilitated by medical student volunteers, exposes local students to careers in health and includes sessions on narrative medicine, dentistry, public health and health innovation. Students in the program, many of whom also identify as groups underrepresented in medicine, come from all over the state.

There’s also a six-week pathology summer internship, which provides an opportunity for local high school students to explore careers in basic and translational scientific research within the medical field of pathology.

In Month of Medicine, a three-week program that ran in June, pre-med undergraduate students (rising juniors and seniors) from the University of Rhode Island, Providence College and Rhode Island College got a snapshot of the med-school experience. The program gives students from groups underrepresented in medicine the opportunity to experience medical school-level coursework while enhancing their competitiveness as a medical school applicant. It’s appropriately rigorous and enriching, Diaz said: For example, before encountering a cadaver, they may spend time reading and discussing the history and ethics of body donor programs, according to mentors. Program participants will also have the opportunity to shadow physicians during the upcoming academic year. Month of Medicine provides a stipend to participants.

Dumond mentors students during both Month of Medicine and Week of Medicine, as does fellow second-year Brown medical student Carolina Carrillo.

“I think it’s incredibly valuable and interesting for these students to have this experience,” Carrillo said. “And I personally find it very fulfilling to work with the pathways programs and bring more underrepresented students into the field of medicine.”

This is the inaugural session of Week of Medicine, but Omoaregba said that it will become a regular event. The ultimate scenario would look something like this, he explained: Middle school students in Central Falls will be introduced to careers in medicine and healthcare through SMART Plus, connect with Warren Alpert Medical School mentors, move on to high school and attend a summer program like Week of Medicine, and then, confidence boosted, develop their interests in medicine and science in college. While pre-med, they’d participate in a program like Month of Medicine and shadow local physicians, apply to medical school — with the support of their mentors and other medical professionals with whom they’ve connected, and with a history of experiences that makes them attractive to med school programs.

“A that point,” Omoaregba said, “we’d welcome them back to the Providence area to practice medicine — maybe even mentor other local students.”