Dr. Susan Kane, PhD
Professor of Cancer Biology at the Beckman Research Institute of City of HopeFollow this author
More and more we find ourselves going outside the country to fill research positions and graduate student admissions at City of Hope. Not the county, but the country! One reason for this is the relative shortage of American students going into the sciences and into research careers beyond college. According to the National Science Foundation, only 31% of bachelor’s degrees are given in the fields of science and engineering in the U.S. – and that proportion is actually down slightly from 1966 when such data were first collected.
At the graduate school level, the number of American students pursuing advanced degrees in the sciences increased by 80% between 1980 and 2011, but the number of foreign students doing similar graduate work in the U.S. grew by more than 200% over the same time period. This is all happening at a time when the healthcare and biomedical fields are growing and needing to fill a wide range of jobs and career positions. Key areas of improvement to meet the growing need include career development, science communication skills, collaboration, curriculum reform and mentorship.
Unfortunately, standardized testing under the new Common Core curriculum coming in the 2014-15 school year does nothing to address these issues. There is no federal requirement for science proficiency testing, so there is no incentive for teachers and students to put more focus on the sciences.
If we want to remain in the forefront of biomedicine in this country, it’s imperative that we start making the sciences an educational priority and connecting the dots between jobs of the future – particularly in science and engineering – and the students who will make up tomorrow’s workforce. In our City of Hope catchment area, as in much of the country, that means reaching out to the Hispanic community, which is 47% of the local population. And yet, currently only 9% of science & engineering bachelor’s degrees and just under 4% of science and engineering doctoral degrees go to Hispanics, with another 8% and 3%, respectively, going to African Americans.
It’s important not just to fill positions, but to fill them with people who mirror the community we serve. The value of having a diverse workforce is that they bring different perspectives to the table – especially ones that are specific to their culture, customs, lifestyles and backgrounds – and this in turn can play a crucial role in treatment and cures. For example, a diverse workforce is much more likely to pursue biomedical research problems that address and ultimately reduce health disparities that persist among many minority communities. Diversity is also critical for maximizing creativity and innovation in the research setting and for broadening the scope of inquiry into new areas of investigation.
The challenge is, how do we get more students in our local region involved, especially the majority-minority that are of Hispanic background? How do we create greater awareness for students and their parents about careers in science and research and the pathways to entering those careers?
We must start early in the pipeline, encouraging young people toward the sciences through mentoring, role models and programs that promote healthcare and biomedicine as a viable and rewarding career path. To be most effective, this outreach, education and career development must start young and it must continue throughout the student’s educational journey.
The sooner students become involved in real science, the more likely they are to major in the sciences when they get to college and even to continue on to Master’s and Ph.D. programs. We need to find these students and help them see and seize the opportunity early on. At City of Hope, we had to go no further than our own backyard to find students and a ready partner in the Duarte Unified School District (DUSD). It started in the second half of the last decade when we met with DUSD teachers, administrators, school board members and even Duarte city council members. The goal was to discover our mutual interests and needs and then work together on fulfilling them.
An important first step was simply connecting City of Hope scientists with science teachers in the classroom so that we could help them develop experiments for their students and increase their awareness of and access to the latest technologies. That initial connection ultimately led to the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) Collaborative, now a formal partnership between DUSD and City of Hope that is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Through this program we engage every 2nd, 5th and 8th grader in the district in a variety of science activities and field trips during the school year. Those multiple contacts mean that today’s 2nd graders will have interacted with City of Hope scientists at least three times by the time they reach high school.
For high schoolers, we’ve moved beyond the school-year field trips to a summer research program held in City of Hope’s community teaching lab. Rising 11th and 12th grade students from Duarte High School conduct real research on a team-based project related to a fundamental biological process involved in the development of cancer. Students spend 8 weeks learning basic laboratory techniques and doing experiments in a highly collaborative and mentored setting. They also learn and practice written and oral presentation skills and they are given information about college and career pathways in the sciences.
After the summer program, students who want to continue doing research during the school year are paired with mentors from City of Hope – a faculty member and a grad student or post-doctoral fellow in his or her lab – based on their similar interests. Of the 42 students who have completed the summer program so far, 11 have gone on to do research during the school year. After the first full year of the program, two out of six students who did the school-year program even went on to paid internships as part of the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy at City of Hope, a highly-coveted and competitive program that caters to both high school and college students.
Similar to an internship, the school-year pairing with City of Hope mentors gives students valuable experience working on actual research projects, generating their own data, and then talking about their work by giving regular updates to other lab members and more formal presentations to their peers.
Students learn what it’s like to be a scientist and the skills that go with it, such as critical thinking, how to design an experiment around a hypothesis, implementing the proper controls, analyzing and interpreting data, and presenting their results. The point of the lab experience is not so much teaching specific facts and figures, but more about exposing students to the research thought process and the lifestyle of the career scientist – which is quite different from the work-a-day world – to see if they find it appealing and worth pursuing.
All of these efforts have met with success and approval from the school district and the community as a whole. Along the way, we’ve learned a few best practices for getting started and reaching out to the community: