Four years ago Gil G. Mor, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, was thinking of ways to get local high school students interested not just in science but also in studying science at Yale.
“Kids in the area would never apply here,” he said. “They always think Yale is something belonging to a completely different world. And then there’s a decrease in the number of these young kids going into science and medicine.”
So Mor initiated the Discovery to Cure program, which brought six high school juniors into Yale research labs that summer. The same year, Mor also asked teachers at the participating high schools how many of their students planned on applying to Yale. The answer was zero. But last year four students in the program applied to Yale, and two are now attending. Other program graduates went on to study science and medicine at such schools as Harvard, Cornell and the University of Chicago. Some have returned to Yale for summer research as undergraduates. Last summer, the fourth year of the program, 20 students spent six weeks in Yale labs.
The new program joins other Yale initiatives to bring high school students into research labs. For several years students at New Haven’s Hill Regional Career High School have lived on campus in a summer program during which they participate in small-group problem-based learning. And the Anatomy Teaching Program has brought Career students to the anatomy lab for sessions led by medical students.
“We were a little afraid of bringing teenagers into the lab,” Mor said. “They might break things, damage things. But the opposite happened. They contributed to the lab. The work that they did was outstanding.”
Kaitlin Markoja from Cheshire High School studied the connection between the immune system and pregnancy in Mor’s lab. “People who are pregnant don’t respond to viruses in the same way as other people, and we’re trying to understand this,” she explained.
Markoja’s summer research cemented her plans to pursue a career in science or medicine. “It was such a hands-on experience,” she said.
Irene Visintin, a research associate who coordinates the program with Mor, said complete immersion is what makes this opportunity so remarkable. “We don’t want them in there washing dishes. That’s not the goal,” she said. Not only do the students contribute to research, but they also remind some of the more senior researchers why science is fun. “They ask a million and one questions and run around smiling,” Visintin said.
Kelsey Hogan, a budding neuroscientist from Mercy High School, a parochial school in Middletown, Conn., worked in the lab of Tamas L. Horvath, D.V.M., Ph.D., professor of comparative medicine, of neurobiology and of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences. She studied the effects of maternal obesity on mice offspring, spending most of her days dissecting brains to look for dye that indicated the activity of cells that control appetite.
This gory and repetitive work could turn some people away from science. But Kelsey loved it. “This was the best summer vacation I’ve ever had,” she said, grinning.