Program marks 30 years of bringing medical education to low-income teens

More than 700 students, 30 summers, zero tuition: The no-cost Stanford Medical Youth Science Program helps aspiring low-income teens begin their journey toward careers in the medical and health sciences.

- By Julie Greicius

William Tate (left), a medical student at Stanford, instructs participants of the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program in the anatomy lab.
Steve Fisch

The categories were “muscles of the thorax,” “health disparities,” “lungs,” “bones of the thorax” and “research and college prep.”

Gathered in the living room of Roth House, on the Stanford University campus, on a recent Sunday evening, two-dozen high school juniors and seniors hit buzzers and threw their hands up in hopes of being chosen to answer. They were playing a quiz game that tested their knowledge from a week packed with medical lectures, labs, hospital internships and workshops on college admissions.

The game night capped week one of the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, a free, five-week residential summer program for low-income high schoolers from Northern California who aspire to careers in the medical and health sciences. This summer’s session is the program’s 30th, and will bring its alumni roster to more than 700.

“This is an exciting year for us,” said the program’s executive director, Alivia Shorter.

The program was conceived by two Stanford pre-med students, Michael McCullough and Mark Lawrence, who in 1987 approached Marilyn Winkleby, MPH, PhD, now a professor emerita of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, seeking faculty sponsorship and financial support. Winkleby, who came from a low-income background herself, embraced the idea and helped sustain it for the next three decades. In 2011, the program was recognized with the U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

“Dr. Winkleby saw that there are many talented, intellectually curious, passionate young people around, that if they just had a little more mentorship, we could change the trajectory of their careers and their lives,” said Shorter, who also is director of diversity and outreach for Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies, a set of programs for teens that includes the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program.

‘Hungry for education’

Winkleby said that in the program’s first year, she helped recruit seven students from schools in East Palo Alto. “We’ve always focused on selecting students with a high potential but who are often overlooked,” she said. “They’re hungry for education, resources and knowledge.”

(From left) Medical student Pablo Romano with Sujeiri Venegas, Monse Andrade and Ashlee Agundiz, who were among the program's 24 participants.
Steve Fisch

The program combines science education, hands-on clinical experience and personal development. Strong bonds that form between the 10 Stanford undergraduate counselors and 24 high school participants — and among the participants themselves — create a sense of belonging and connection, according to several participants in the program. At least half of the teens in the program are away from home for the first time.

Group activities at the residence facilitate bonding. “We have identity workshops; ‘todos time,’ where everyone responds to a question; and storytelling,” said Luis Arreola, 18, a rising sophomore at Stanford and a program counselor. Arreola, from El Sobrante, California, is an alumnus of the 2015 program. “All these activities push the participants out of their comfort zone. They become closer, more authentic and — it’s almost as if you knew these people your entire life.”

The close, community experience is especially important for students coming to the program with big goals complicated by challenging backgrounds. “This is a program for students who are low-income, who often experience high levels of adversity. And for counselors, it’s not just a summer job,” said Shorter, who was a counselor herself in in the program in 2008, following her sophomore year at Stanford. “It’s a transformative experience for counselors, too, many of whom come from a similar background and see that a mentor really changed their lives, and they want to now do that for someone else.”

Tracking the program’s alumni

Among students who fail to complete high school in California, the vast majority — 80 percent — are low-income, according to a 2018 report from Johns Hopkins University. Close to 100 percent of participants in the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program graduate from high school, and just over 80 percent graduate from a four-year college. “We’ve been tracking alumni since day one,” Shorter said. “More than 50 percent of our students either enter the health professions or go on to advanced graduate degrees and ultimately enter careers as clinicians or in other areas of health. As part of our 30th year, we’re going to do a new, five-year longitudinal assessment.”

Homar Murillo (wearing glasses), a 17-year-old student at Leadership Public High School in Hayward, wants to be a trauma surgeon.
Steve Fisch

The rigorous selection process for counselors begins about a year before the start of the summer program, and involves an application, multiple group interviews, behavioral interviews and a 10-week course taught by Shorter on leadership in multicultural health.

The criteria for the participating high school students are selective, but aren’t focused solely on academic achievement. “We’re looking for students who are ready to dive in deep,” Shorter said. “And we know that might not mean the highest GPA. We’re really asking them, ‘What do you see in your community that you want to change, and how are you already taking those steps?’ ‘How are you already getting involved in this world outside of just your coursework?’ We’re looking for their academic potential from a bigger picture above their test scores.”

Homar Murillo, a rising senior from Leadership Public High School in Hayward, developed an interest in medicine while being treated during childhood for multiple health issues. Today, Murillo, 17, is healthy and grateful to the medical teams who helped him along the way. He’s determined to become a trauma surgeon.

His school counselor suggested the Stanford program to him. “I expected study, study, study, study, and no one talking to each other,” Murillo said. “But you walk into these doors and it’s like you have a whole new family. I’ve never gotten so close to people as I have in this program. I haven’t had so much academic support with people I barely know.”

For Jasmine Dilworth, 17, a rising senior at Sunnyside High School in Fresno, the program presented a chance to accelerate her learning and test the waters at her dream school, Stanford. “Getting into this program really opened my eyes. I realized that I actually do have a lot of potential,” Dilworth said.

For students like Murillo and Dilworth, the opportunity to experience anatomy labs with human cadavers was a compelling aspect of the program. Working with a cadaver was “nothing like I expected,” Dilworth said. “But it was just really cool to apply what we learned that day to a real human body.”

Learning about thorax and lungs

The first week’s curriculum included study of the thorax and lungs in lecture, as well as in the anatomy laboratory and in Stanford Hospital with patients. “They took us into one of the rooms where the patient was getting the liquid in the cavity under his lungs removed,” Dilworth said. “Then, later in the day we were talking about the lungs and the thoracic cavities. So it was just really interesting to apply the stuff that we’ve seen to an actual lesson, and to understand that it actually happens on a daily basis.”

During the program’s five weeks, the students break into seven teams and develop research projects on health disparities. Projects this year include “Liver cancer within the Latinx community,” “Obesity rates in Native American communities” and “Prevalence of substance abuse in the LGBTQ Latinx population” among others. “At graduation, each group shares their research project in a seven-minute presentation to a large audience of family, faculty and mentors,” said program manager Grayson Throckmorton, a rising Stanford senior. “We also develop the research into a published form that they send to their policymakers at home.”

We’re empowering them to know that they’re smart, they belong in college and we need them in health careers.

What each student can bring back to their communities is an immediate benefit of the program, Shorter said. “We can only touch 24 lives each summer,” she said. “But the students take home so much. They’re changing their communities the day they go home. It doesn’t just happen years from now when they become doctors. We don’t have to wait for them to be leaders. They are leaders right this very second.”

Now, Shorter and her team are looking ahead to the future. “Students who are 10 years down the road, they’re going to continue to experience barriers,” she said. “And the support that they need is very different from when you’re 17 to when you’re 27. This year we’re launching our alumni association. How we can better support our alumni as they continue on their trajectory is at the top of the list of our priorities.”

Winkleby still attends the first day of every summer session and stays involved with many former students for years after they finish the program, supporting alumni as they navigate the academic and professional worlds.

“When I came to Stanford, given my background, I had to learn to walk in the world of Stanford. And that was challenging. We’re empowering these students to know that you can walk in both worlds,” Winkleby said. “We’re empowering them to know that they’re smart, they belong in college and we need them in health careers.”

Winkleby received grants during the program’s early years to cover its annual costs of $100,000. In 1998, the program received funding for five years from Stanford Graduate School of Business alumnus Leo Hindery Jr. and three of his friends: John Malone, David Perry and John Doerr. The Edmund W. Littlefield Foundation also provided significant funding for several years. Then, in 2011, Hindery made a $500,000 endowment to the program, increasing it in 2016 with an additional $400,000. Stanford University and the School of Medicine also provide support.

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