Alyssa Findlay couldn’t believe it.
Now a sophomore at New Haven’s High School in the Community, Findlay attended a week-long genetics course in July called “DNA: From 3D to 23andMe” led by Women’s Health Research at Yale Assistant Director Elizabeth Luoma, Ph.D., as part of the Yale Pathways to Science Summer Scholars Program.
During a discussion of sex and gender, Dr. Luoma explained to Findlay and her classmates how women remain underrepresented in many studies of cardiovascular disease and cancer. She added that many studies of medications do not analyze safety and efficacy by sex or gender.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Findlay said. “When testing drugs, it’s important to know how they affect both women and men.”
Findlay’s surprised reaction was similar to many others WHRY encounters in its work with students.
“We have discovered that even undergraduate premed majors are not being taught how sex and gender influence health outcomes,” Luoma said. “We have also learned that students want exposure to this information and the data behind it.”
WHRY is meeting that need through the center’s various educational initiatives.
“Our goal is to prepare the next generation of scientific researchers and health professionals so that they can conduct better science and meet the unique needs of their patients, beginning with the crucial influences of sex and gender,” Luoma said.
For 20 years, WHRY has trained and mentored future scientists and medical practitioners. This work began with junior faculty members and postdoctoral researchers before extending to graduate students. The WHRY Undergraduate Research Fellowship, now in its fifth year, has paired over 20 Yale College students with faculty mentors for hands-on training in the latest approaches to the science of women’s health.
WHRY is also currently working on a teaching model for local undergraduate institutions so that students learn as early as possible in their academic careers about the importance of studying women and sex-and-gender differences.
By teaching high school students through the Yale Pathways Summer Scholars Program, Dr. Luoma is informing and inspiring an even younger cohort, often as they are getting their first exposure to high-level science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) material.
“This is fun,” said Amin Rosli, a sophomore at Engineering and Science University Magnet School in New Haven, of Dr. Luoma’s week-long seminar. “I’m getting exposed to a lot of things I haven’t learned in school yet.”
Rosli, who plans to explore a possible career in computer or biological engineering, is one of 1,700 middle and high school students from New Haven, West Haven, and Amity who participate in the free program over the course of the year.
Claudia Merson, Director of Public School Partnerships for Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, launched Pathways to Science in 2009 to provide a shared infrastructure uniting what are now more than 1,000 Yale faculty, staff, postdoctoral associates, and graduate and undergraduate students who volunteer their time to teach local students the latest and most promising developments in science.
“Yale and our local communities are essentially in the same business,” Merson said. “Working on the development of human potential. At Pathways, we welcome these young people as the newest members of our scientific community.”
Maria E. Parente, Yale’s Manager of Community Programs in Science, said Dr. Luoma’s class has been one of the most requested, citing her degree in Cell Biology and her work as STEM Education Program Director for the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning as assets that make her an exceptional instructor.
“Beth sets high-level objectives, and she gets to them in five days,” Parente said. “She engages the students, makes sure to have a lot of interaction, teaches a really diverse group of students, and is able to successfully navigate each student’s needs.”
For Luoma, that also means making sure they understand the importance of studying women and sex-and-gender differences.
“These students will shape the future for all of us,” Luoma said. “I believe in them, and I find no greater honor than teaching them – and learning from them – at the start of their scientific journeys.”