When Ebony Carson’s beloved grandmother was diagnosed with cancer about four years ago, the smart, talented high school freshman did two things: first, she prayed for her grandmother. Second, she decided to dedicate her life to health and science.
Fast forward to 2012. Ebony’s grandmother can now call herself “survivor.” And Ebony can call herself salutatorian… aspiring scientist… and a ROADS researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
ROADS, which stands for “Research Opportunity for Academic Development in Science,” is a program that matches local high school students who are underrepresented minorities, and who are interested in science, with MCW mentors who invite them to spend the summer in their laboratory researching, learning, and stimulating interest in careers in science, medicine, and biomedical research.
This is Ebony’s third summer in the ROADS program, and her second in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Olivier, a professor of physiology in MCW’s Biotechnology and Bioengineering Center, and the director of the Wisconsin Center of Excellence in Genomics Science, a joint project between MCW and UW-Madison.
“When I first came, it was overwhelming,” Ebony said. “I’d never been in a real working lab before. And I was suddenly working on an actual scientific project as part of a team of doctors, scientists, and other students.”
This summer, it’s a little different for the 17-year old. She recently graduated from Messmer High School in Milwaukee, where she stood as her class salutatorian. The valedictorian, incidentally, is her best friend. Ebony knows her way around campus and around a lab, and the project she’s working on is intricate and elaborate, but she knows exactly her role and how to do it well. And she sounds like a scientist.
“What I’m doing,” she demonstrated, “is monitoring RNA digestion. Also, we’re purifying nucleic acids by phenol chloroform extraction, and determining the effect of Proteinase K on qPCR. We are trying to find out how proteins bind to a specific sequence of DNA.”
It’s a high tech job, but one she enjoys. That’s the most important part of the program, says Dr. Olivier.
“We’re growing their interest in science, and want them to be familiar with a real laboratory environment and to feel comfortable,” Dr. Olivier said. “I don’t think they ever forget if they’ve had a good time. There is a very narrow window to get kids excited about science. Outreach programs and innovative programs that help kids see science options are important.”
Role models are important as well; Dr. Olivier’s lab staff decides as a whole how many students to mentor each summer, and how to best involve them in ongoing projects. Students aren’t playing “pretend;” they are completing key components of experiments and reporting their findings and results to scientists.
“Everyone has different backgrounds, and different views on what they enjoy the most and what they’re getting out of the project, because we have such varied interests,” Ebony remarked.
Programs like ROADS are key in addressing the discrepancies in medical practice, as well as science, said program organizers.
A 2010 study found underrepresented minorities make up just seven percent of practicing physicians, and just slightly more than that in medical school right now. If you look at science as a whole, a 2009 National Academies of Science report stated that underrepresented minority groups comprised 28.5 percent of our national population in 2006, yet just 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in science and engineering occupations.
“Attracting students to science careers, and providing them with mentors, research opportunities, and experience are all important factors in those career decisions,” said Dawn Bragg, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Diversity at MCW. “ROADS is just one of the initiatives our Office of Student Affairs/Diversity has implemented to support underrepresented minorities who are interested in pursuing a career in science.”
As for Ebony, she would like to focus her career path on women’s cancers, and is considering the M.D./Ph.D. program at MCW. “It’s where my passion is,” she said.
To be eligible for ROADS, students must be entering their junior or senior year of high school, or must have just graduated. They must attend Milwaukee Public Schools or a local suburban school, carry at least a 3.2 GPA, and apply with letters of recommendation from educators. A stipend is provided for students who complete the seven-week program. For more information, visit http://www.mcw.edu/medicalschool/studentdiversity/diversityprograms.htm.