Providence-area high schoolers explore careers in health in summer pathways program

A medical student-run program at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School introduced high school students to an array of careers in health and medicine.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The high schoolers in the mid-July class were doing what teens do: snapping cell phone photos and enthusiastically commenting on each other’s shots. But the images on their phones were a bit atypical: they were magnified versions of cells from human body organs.

For that day’s session on pathology — part of the HealthCORE pathways program at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, which introduces careers in medicine — Brown faculty member Dr. Corey Hanley shared details about her job as a pathologist. She used microscope slides to show the teens how she identifies abnormalities and makes patient diagnoses to help influence treatment plans.

Looking up from a microscope, one student exclaimed: “This is awesome — I want to do this!”

The goal of HealthCORE is to elicit reactions just like that one. The two-week summer program, which largely enrolls students from groups historically underrepresented in medicine, exposes teens to careers in health, teaches them important skills and connects them with professionals who can encourage their interests. This year 14 students met daily at Brown’s medical school to hear from speakers and explore hands-on health activities, from administering a physical exam to dissecting a cow’s heart to examining microscopic cells. They also delved into areas such as narrative medicine, health policy, medical ethics and public health.

Faculty members who led this year’s sessions described their daily routines and shared details about the path they took to their career of choice. Hanley, for example, told students about her medical residency and answered questions about the typical salary, hours and lifestyle for pathologists.

Hearing directly from professionals about the ins and outs of their careers, as well as their educational journeys, allows students to envision themselves in those same roles, said Luckson Omoaregba, director of pathways programs at the Warren Alpert Medical School.

“Learning about the day-to-day activities of a variety of health professionals, as well as what those people love about their jobs and what they find challenging, helps high school students think about these careers in the context of their own lives,” Omoaregba said. “It gets them thinking, ‘This sounds like something I’d like; this sounds like something I could do.’”

HealthCORE is part of a network of educational pathways programs at the medical school. While there’s some curriculum overlap with the Week of Medicine program, HealthCORE is broader in scope.

“Both summer programs are exploratory and introductory in nature, but what they’re introducing is different,” Omoaregba said. “Week of Medicine focuses on the pathway to becoming a physician, while HealthCORE shows a day in the life of a variety of health professions.”

Despite their distinctions, both programs serve a similar goal: HealthCORE and Week of Medicine are intended to spark an interest that propels students down the path to medical school and motivates them to pursue careers in health.

The students who are drawn to these programs usually bring a nascent interest in science. Yuliana Bueno, a rising 10th grader from Providence who attends the Met School, was vocally enthusiastic about the pathology class and counted the anatomy session among her favorites.

“I came because I know I want to work in medicine,” Bueno said. “This program has strengthened my interest.”

Khairah Shiyanbola, a rising sophomore at the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Charter High School, said the program exceeded expectations. She said that the nursing skills she’s learning at RINI could be a stepping stone to other health careers, and she noted that HealthCORE introduced her to additional options. 

“I’ve really enjoyed this program,” Shiyanbola said, noting that she especially enjoyed the medical interviews with mock patients. “The topics are so interesting, and the sessions are great.”

For high school students, by medical school students (and faculty)

Two second-year medical students, Michael-Evans James and Theodore Addo, organized and led HealthCORE this year.

“This age group has so much potential,” said James, a Florida native who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public health from Boston University. “It’s exciting to be able to create these experiences for them and talk to them about careers in health care. I didn’t have these kinds of opportunities in high school.”

Addo grew up in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and studied biological sciences at the University of Maryland. He said he was eager to spend his summer break from medical school working with HealthCORE.

“I’m passionate about helping underrepresented minorities become interested in science,” Addo said.

While a program template has been in place since HealthCORE launched in 2018, the two co-leads were charged with developing this summer’s curriculum and fleshing out the details. New this year were an anatomy lesson that included the dissection of a cow’s heart, as well as the pathology session.

During that class, the high schoolers kept summoning the medical students over to see their slides and their photos of slides. The program leaders were impressed by the energy level in the room.

“I have to say, it wasn’t like this during our med school pathology class!” James said. “It’s just really cool to see that these students are so interested.”

In addition to curriculum development, Addo and James helped to recruit student participants, communicated with families, partnered with medical school faculty presenters and coordinated the sessions — setting up microscopes, providing gloves, assisting faculty with the cow’s hearts, creating educational games. They also needed to put together a budget and work with medical school staff for grant reimbursement.

“For Warren Alpert medical students, so much learning happens outside the medical school year,” Omoaregba said. “By volunteering with HealthCORE, Theo and Michael-Evans are learning how to run a medical educational program. I’d like to think that they’ll take this experience into their future careers. Maybe an organizational or administrative challenge will come up later in medical school, or in their residency, and they’ll be able to say, ‘Well, I ran HealthCORE, so I know I can handle this.’”

To build confidence among the participants, help them develop public speaking skills and reinforce learning, Addo and James devised multiple opportunities for students to present in front of each other. In one session, students were divided into groups of three or four and presented class topics they found captivating — including Parkinson’s disease and ectopic pregnancies. Another day, students performed mock medical exams, in which they presented their “patient’s” case to the entire cohort.

On the last day of the program in mid-July, students created posters and presented about their experience in HealthCORE. Carla Gomez, a rising 11th grader from Davies High School in Lincoln, R.I., said that while she was initially intimidated by the idea of the capstone presentation, she found the experience to be a lot of fun. The program as a whole was more social and inspiring than she’d expected, Gomez said.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn about the medical field,” Gomez said. “And actually, it did help. I learned a lot of cool things — including careers in health I didn’t know much about, including ob-gyn.”

Gomez was also intrigued to hear about paid research opportunities for high school students, which she’s now looking into. One of the best parts of the program, she noted, was the friendships she made with other local high schoolers who have similar interests. They’ve exchanged contact information and plan to keep in touch — until, Gomez said, they can meet up again at another health-related pathways event or program.