The Stanford Medical Youth Science Program (SMYSP) is a 5-week summer residential program for rising high school juniors and seniors interested in science and medicine. The students, who come from underrepresented and low-income backgrounds, have an opportunity to experience the medical profession from the inside out. This year's program concluded late last month with a graduation ceremony in which the students presented their scientific research projects on health disparities and advocacy to an audience of their parents and supporters.
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to speak with the program's longtime director, Judith T. Ned, EdD, who told me SMYSP has come a long way since it was co-founded 28 years ago by Stanford epidemiologist Marilyn Winkleby, PhD, MPH. This is Ned's 14th year running the show. She has made lot of beneficial changes and expansions, many of which happened since we last featured SMYSP in 2010, without losing sight of the program's purpose: to expose these kids to the fields of science and medicine while increasing workforce diversity in the health professions.
Each year, 12 boys and 12 girls are selected for the program, all of whom come from 20 counties surrounding Stanford. "The goal is to really provide services and opportunities to students who are in our backyard, if you will," Ned told me. The students have a well-rounded curriculum - not only do they attend lectures by leading academics and industry professionals, anatomy lectures and labs (with cadavers!), and twice-weekly clinical internships, but they have non-clinical days where they investigate departments like hospital food service, security, and art therapy. "We want to show them that it takes multiple people in multiple areas to really make the hospital function. Most of the time, many of my students serve as translators for their parents when they go into the hospital. This is the flip side: the provider's perspective, not the patient's. It's been an interesting experience to see them switch mindsets."
Programming includes SAT prep, "game shows" to improve knowledge retention, and evening workshops that include leadership development and performing arts. Ned wants the students to know that "you can take a well-rounded liberal arts education, get into medical school, and still practice your craft, embracing both sides of your identity." Community service is also a key feature of the program, such as the beautification project they did at the East Palo Alto YMCA the Saturday before our interview.
Ned told me one of the major ways the program has expanded recently is by including social science curriculum, which discusses the context of medicine and health disparities. She and her undergraduate staff talk to the students about identity, power, privilege, advocacy, and disparities in a workshop she developed called "person in the mirror," which gives them terms, names, and concepts to bring to bear on their everyday experience. "We talk about how they move within the world, and how they react with respect to the different forms of their identity. It's that kind of content that gets them to think... It's really cool to see their eyes light up, when the dots are connecting."
The day before our interview, that workshop was on race. To teach the difference between personally mediated, internalized, and institutionalized racism, Ned used Camara Phyllis Jones' metaphor of TThe Gardner's Tale (pdf), an allegory in which a gardener has one box of pink flowers and another of red flowers, and comes to view one as superior to the other, which affects how each gets nourished. "It's a beautiful metaphor, and it's an easy metaphor to deconstruct with the students," said Ned. The culmination of this social science component is their final research project, in which they focus on a health disparity in their community and how to advocate to improve it.
When Ned talked about the close bonds that form each summer, she smiled delightedly. "In the last 14 years, we've really concentrated on a sense of community and belonging for the students. They're able to allow themselves to be vulnerable, to really say what's on their mind, to agree to disagree in conversations... I take it very seriously that we've been able to garner that kind of trust. They feel that it's their program."
And in conclusion, when I asked her what she's learned through directing this program, she told me, "When we adults are our authentic selves, the students become their authentic selves... And I get the best reward out of that. They're cool people and I'm learning from them all the time. I think this is one of the best jobs I've ever had, really!"