Toward an Inclusive Next Generation of Physicians and Scientists

A School of Medicine pipeline program supports underrepresented high school students on the road to health sciences careers
Marianne Chuy, E23, Nashielli “Elli” Diaz, E22, and Enrique Rodriguez, E23, served as mentors to the high school students. Photo: Paul Rutherford
October 5, 2021

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On a sunny day this past summer, a group of high school students was exploring a biomedical engineering lab on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus with obvious enthusiasm.

“I can show you all the different kinds of cells that we’re growing in the lab right now,” said Nashielli “Elli” Diaz, E22, an intern in the Integrated Biofunctional Imaging and Therapeutics (iBIT) lab, as the visiting students—mostly rising juniors and seniors from Boston and Medford public schools—took turns peering through a microscope.

The lab trip was part of a new, six-week summer program called Tufts Mini-Med Connect. The program, offered by Tufts University School of Medicine, gives high schoolers from groups that are underrepresented in the health sciences the opportunity to learn about careers in medicine and research. In addition to the faculty they met, the high schoolers were matched with undergraduate mentors—Diaz, Enrique Rodriguez, E23, and Marianne Chuy, E23—who were also finding their place in the scientific realm this past summer.

Mini-Med Connect is designed to provide future health leaders with resources and opportunities that may not have otherwise been offered to them. The goal is to cultivate an environment where students can explore cutting-edge medical science topics and careers while connecting with a community where they can ask questions about being Black, Indigenous or a person of color in STEM, and about college applications, financial aid, and participating in research as an undergrad.

The aim isn’t to get these high schoolers interested in science—they’ve already shown their passion for that. Dayanara Mendez, a Boston student who was born in the Dominican Republic, has long wanted to be a doctor. “I just love seeing myself in the future, diagnosing a patient,” she said. “It’s so brilliant.”

Rather, said Berri Jacque, director of the School of Medicine’s Center for Science Education (CSE) and the creator of Mini-Med Connect, “the primary goal is to keep those sparks and fan them.” He said a big fall-off in STEM engagement happens between high school and the second year of college. “Many students, especially if they're coming from a first-gen family or from a background that is less reflected in the sciences, have a much higher likelihood of losing interest in science once they get into college.”

During their weeks at Mini-Med Connect, Jacque said, the high schoolers started building a network of support and knowledge, the kind that will help them in college. “You get your first F or face a microaggression in class and you say, ‘Well, I’m never going to be a physician.’ That’s when you need to call someone up, someone who has been through that.”

Mini-Med Connect grew out of the very successful Mini-Med School pre-college summer program that Jacque, Research Assistant Professor Carol Bascom-Slack, and the School of Medicine launched with University College last year. More than 300 students have taken part in that two-week health sciences curriculum—presented online because of COVID—that combines medical case studies, lab work, and student research projects and video presentations, all under the guidance of School of Medicine MD students who act as teaching assistants. It’s something of a pre-pre-med program.

The high school students toured a biomedical engineering lab where one of their mentors, Elli Diaz, third from left, interned this summer. Diaz said she wants to continue mentoring throughout her career. Photo: Julie FlahertyFor this summer, Jacque engaged his CSE colleagues EmilyKate McDonough, co-director of Mini-Med School, and Revati Masilamani, co-director of Great Diseases, to design and direct Mini-Med Connect as an offshoot of Mini-Med specifically for groups traditionally underrepresented in the health sciences, which include Black, Indigenous, low-income, and first-generation students, among others. The Connect students had four additional weeks of programming: one-on-one time with their mentors, group talks with each other, and Q&A sessions with guest speakers. (Most of it was conducted online, but after some careful planning, they were able to meet up in person for the lab and campus tour.) The topics ranged from diverse role models in STEM to how to prepare for an interview to financial literacy for college.

With funding from a National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award, Tufts offered all six weeks of the program free to 15 students along with a stipend.

Rikita BK, a Medford High junior who was born in Nepal, said that her favorite parts of Mini-Med Connect have been the “hidden curriculum” discussions, where they talk about everything from the importance of having a LinkedIn profile and how to make one to the history of racism in medicine.

In addition to helping the students with their Mini-Med School course work, the three mentors fielded questions about the realities of securing financial aid, time management, navigating predominantly white spaces, and the college application process.

As a first-generation student, Chuy remembers having similar questions when she was applying to college. “Knowing that the person you're asking questions to has gone through the same experiences and that you don't really have to explain certain things to them—I think there's a certain comfort level that comes with that,” she said.

The mentors, all of whom have been active in the Latinx Center and other Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion centers at Tufts, encouraged the students to consider similar organizations and other resources designed to support them at the universities they want to apply to.

Mini-Med Connect is not just a pipeline for high school students; it is also a training program for the next generation of science mentors. As part of the program, mentors received free housing, mentorship training, and paid internships in Tufts laboratories.

Rodriguez said that his first mentor taught him the importance of having someone to help him navigate an academic field where he and others are historically underrepresented, “not only for resilience but also as a tool of empowerment.” This summer, his internship in Aimee Shen’s microbiology lab at the School of Medicine emphasized independence and mentorship. “When I faced the inevitable mistakes that come with research, that support helped me thrive,” he said.

Diaz chose to work in the iBIT lab of Srivalleesha Mallidi, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering. As a woman of color in an academic field where she saw few role models like herself, Mallidi said she had to learn on the job how to be a leader and mentor, and she’s glad that Diaz is getting a chance now to hone those skills.

“Having mentors, someone to talk to, someone who can share their failures or struggles and can reinforce to the student they are on the right path—it plays a major role in helping the students achieve their goals,” Mallidi said.

Diaz said that she’s inspired by the way Mallidi directs her lab, and one day, she wants to run her own lab with a focus on minority health issues. She said having students in the lab “reminded me of why I chose to be a mentor and why that's something that I want to carry on with me throughout the rest of my career.”

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.