Summer internship welcomes Providence-area high schoolers to explore careers in science and research

A paid summer internship program led by Brown’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine exposes local teenagers to careers in laboratory medicine and pathology.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As a seventh-grader at the Learning Community Charter School in Central Falls, Rhode Island, Ailyn Mendoza developed a passion for science class. Learning about biology and life sciences was exciting, she said, and her curiosity for a career in science and medicine continued as she advanced through high school.

“I’ve always had an interest in learning about illness and disease and how it affects the human body,” Mendoza said. “But I never wanted to be a primary care physician, and I thought, there has to be something else that I can do where I can still contribute to patients or public health — but just not in the role of an everyday doctor.”

During the summer before her senior year at Central Falls High School in 2022, the local teenager discovered that “something else,” through a new internship program at Brown University, where the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine welcomes more than half a dozen Providence-area students to campus each summer for a paid internship that exposes teens to careers in pathology, scientific research and lab medicine.

By working full-time as paid interns — which includes shadowing pathologists in the city’s hospitals, reviewing scientific literature and serving as research assistants in Brown’s state-of-the-art labs — the high schoolers are immersed in the day-to-day work of physician-scientists, researchers and lab technicians and they learn how the specialized medical field of pathology fundamentally influences patient outcomes through medical research, disease detection and treatment planning.

For six weeks, the interns engage in diverse and complex areas of disease study, including toxicology, cancer biology, malaria pathobiology and vaccine development. Yet, the goal of the program is much simpler.

“ This experience has opened a whole new world for me, and I can’t wait to learn more... ”

Agenxnie Anderson a rising senior at the MET High School

A few dozen Brown faculty, researchers, staff and students who serve as teachers and mentors hope to plant seeds of interest in the young Rhode Islanders by creating unique hands-on learning opportunities that promote early exposure to science and medicine, said Dr. Jonathan Kurtis, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School.

“The idea is to expose high school students to basic and translational science in the life sciences and medicine,” Kurtis said. “The students leave with that new understanding of what a pathologist does, but we also hope they see that scientists can have fun, they see the types of jobs are interesting and they can see themselves in these kinds of roles.”

Early exposure to hands-on science

Building awareness around pathology and laboratory medicine at the high school level is a critical first step to cultivating a diverse pipeline of medical students entering the field, according to Kurtis.

He, among a team of Brown faculty leaders and graduate students designed the outreach program, launched in 2018, to specifically create opportunities for students from groups historically underrepresented in medicine and help diversify the number of medical professionals entering the field.

“The biggest problem with diversity in pathology is the pipeline,” Kurtis said. “If you want better diversity in your applicant pool, it’s not rocket science to know that you must do something about it many steps before the actual applicant pool.”

To cultivate interest, the internship invites Providence-area teens to jump into both academic and clinical laboratory settings. Interns learn and practice various laboratory techniques, such as pipetting, cell culturing and DNA extraction. They also work alongside Brown graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and early-career scientists to contribute to the University’s ongoing research, from testing drugs to more effectively treat lung cancer to studying the effects of toxins on brain development.

To better understand the role of pathology in patient care, interns rotate through different pathology subspecialties at Brown’s affiliated teaching hospitals, including Women & Infants Hospital and Rhode Island Hospital, to get a rare, behind-the-scenes look at how pathologists analyze biopsies, surgical specimens and autopsies.

Agenxnie Anderson, a rising senior at the MET High School in Providence, said touring hospitals and actively working in the lab at Brown this summer has been an invaluable learning opportunity. The 17-year-old is interested in attending medical school and applied for the internship to explore the field of medical research.

“When you learn something new, it’s one thing to watch a YouTube video or sit in a classroom to listen and read, but it’s a completely different experience when you can actually do the thing you’re learning about,” Anderson said. “Internships that are hands-on are exciting and inspiring — this experience has opened a whole new world for me, and I can’t wait to learn more about science and research.”

Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Jessica Plavicki, who directs the internship program, said Brown is utilizing its position as a leading research institution in Providence to play a significant role in sparking excitement among local high school students for careers in the biomedical field that they might not  have been exposed to otherwise.

“One of the problems with science education is that most of the time, we approach science as something that we’ve put in a book and that we’re going to tell you to memorize and regurgitate,” Plavicki said. “It’s critical that young students know that science is a dynamic process, that discovery is happening all the time, and that they can be the ones to think about things in a new way that substantially impacts our understanding of how things work.”

Learning in the lab while preparing for the future

When they aren’t shadowing pathologists and researchers in their daily work, the interns meet with Brown graduate and medical students to learn more about the direct pathways to working in the biomedical field, from finding undergraduate research opportunities to applying for medical school.

Other weekly career exploration talks feature panels of clinicians and scientific entrepreneurs sharing the types of jobs available in research, healthcare, academia or the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

The career exploration panels are an essential part of the internship, Plavicki said, because they demonstrate that the journey to success can look different for everyone.

“By hearing from our career panelists, we want students to understand that there is no cookie cutter path —  the people they meet at Brown have all taken different pathways to get to where they are today,” Plavicki said. “There are many ways to apply biomedical training to different professions. It’s important that they can see there are many career options out there for them in this field.”

The first step to a career as a laboratory manager, clinical chemistry technologist or microbiologist, however, is an undergraduate degree. To give interns a leg up on the college admissions process, the program dedicates one day a week to helping students build college lists, write essays and secure letters of recommendation from Brown faculty leaders and researchers.

Naima Gnepa, a rising junior at Classical High School in Providence, said the college admissions workshops helped her better understand what admissions officers are looking for in evaluating applicants.

“As a high school student starting the process of applying to college, the essay for me is the scariest part,” Gnepa said. “Hearing from experts on Brown’s admissions team has helped me. I also now know that you don’t necessarily have to take all advanced classes, but instead, schools want to see what you’ve accomplished with the resources you have, and that was very insightful.”

Since the internship program was established, it has welcomed nearly 30 Providence-area high school students as interns, nearly 100% of whom have matriculated to four-year colleges and universities, including Brown, Yale University, Brandeis University, Salve Regina University and Washington University, among other schools.

As an intern in the 2022 summer cohort, Mendoza is one of a handful of students from the program that have enrolled at Brown. The Central Falls resident will start this fall as a first-year student concentrating in biology and literary arts who aspires to study how microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses infect the human body. By witnessing how Brown researchers and scientists translate scientific discoveries from the laboratory into practical applications for patient care, the internship helped her discover new career possibilities where she can impact the health and wellness of people, she said.

“The internship showed me how research and the medical field are linked and that they’re essential to one another,” Mendoza said. “I now know that I can contribute to our understanding of illness and disease through research — and that work can be incredibly important for its impact on human health.”