A journey to the center of medical and scientific ignorance is an unusual way for a group of 17 high school students from around Arizona to spend a summer vacation — but that’s exactly what they’re doing at The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson.
The students – from Tucson, the Phoenix area, several rural and border communities and Indian reservations – are working as researchers, learning to question established medical knowledge in the Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance (SIMI) Research Program for High School Students. The seven-week program is being held through July 24.
The SIMI Research Program offers financially, socially or educationally disadvantaged high school students an opportunity to work full-time with pay on biomedical research projects with UA College of Medicine researchers in their laboratories and clinics, and often with medical students, as well.
“Explorations in the SIMI Research Program open a boundless universe for the students,” says Marlys Witte, MD, professor with the UA College of Medicine Department of Surgery and director of the program, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Science Education Partnership Award.
“Questions are the starting point and continuation of all learning and discovery, and skilled questioners are needed to expand our horizons. The SIMI program uses the insights and techniques of medical ignorance — unanswered questions and unquestioned answers — to improve science education and health literacy,” Dr. Witte explains.
In addition to research work, SIMI participants attend an innovative seminar series, directed by Dr. Witte, that encourages questioning of established medical knowledge. “They learn that inquiry is what makes research creative and exciting, and that finishing a course of study with more and better unanswered questions is healthy and desirable,” she notes.
All participants also attend an “Introduction to Molecular Medicine” mini-course that offers hands-on, state-of-the-art laboratory sessions, including DNA isolation and DNA fingerprinting.
Since it first was offered at the UA in 1987, 467 students have participated in the SIMI Research Program for High School Students and a significant number have gone on to pursue careers in medical fields. Thirty-four have graduated from, or are in, medical school, including 11 who have graduated from and four who currently are attending the UA College of Medicine. Two have gone to Stanford University School of Medicine, two to Harvard Medical School, one to Yale University School of Medicine, one to Duke University, one to Cornell University and one to Mayo Medical School. Four former participants received dual MD/PhD degrees, and others have pursued degrees at colleges of nursing, pharmacy and veterinary medicine.
Students participating in this year’s program include:
Luis Roberto Arzac, Douglas High School (mentor Robert Erickson, MD, professor of pediatrics and molecular and cellular biology; member, UA BIO5 Institute; and Holsclaw Family Professor of Human Genetics and Inherited Diseases)
Samantha Sawyer, Douglas High School (mentors Marlys Witte, MD, professor of surgery, and Michael Bernas, MS, associate scientific investigator, Department of Surgery)
Megan Hurley, Mountain View High School (mentor Katalin Gothard, MD, PhD, assistant professor of physiology, neurobiology and neurology; member, UA Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute)
Carli Ogle, Mountain View High School (mentor Robert Erickson, MD, professor of pediatrics and molecular and cellular biology; member, UA BIO5 Institute; and Holsclaw Family Professor of Human Genetics and Inherited Diseases)
Alice Lin, Mountain View High School (mentor Julie Lang, MD, assistant professor of surgery; member, UA BIO5 Institute)
Willa Hopkins, Patagonia Union High School (mentor Miranda Adelman, PhD, research assistant professor of medicine; member, Arizona Arthritis Center)
Alicia Enriquez, Baboquivari High School (mentor Mark Witten, PhD, research professor of pediatrics; investigator, Center for Toxicology, UA College of Pharmacy)
Nisa Ramon, Baboquivari High School (mentor Lynne Tomasa, PhD, assistant professor of family & community medicine)
David Gonzalez, Sunnyside High School (mentor Horacio L. Rilo, MD, professor of surgery; director of cellular transplantation; co-director, Arizona Diabetes Center; member, UA BIO5 Institute)
Essence Johnson, Amphitheater High School (mentor Mark Witten, PhD, research professor of pediatrics and investigator, Center for Toxicology, UA College of Pharmacy)
Bridget Jorgensen, Catalina Magnet High School (mentor Richard Sobonya, MD, division chief, anatomic pathology; professor of pathology and medicine)
Okongo Majok, Catalina Magnet High School (mentor Douglas Larson, PhD, professor of surgery and pharmacology; director, instructional research and development)
Cynthia Ramirez, Desert View High School (mentor Betsy Dokken, NP, PhD, assistant professor of medicine)
Esmeralda Salinas-Paz, Amphitheater High School (mentor: Theodore Price, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology)
Antonio Samaniego, Amphitheater High School (mentor David S. Alberts, MD, director, Arizona Cancer Center; Regents Professor, medicine; member, UA BIO5 Institute)
Araceli Vidal, Cholla High School (mentor Jesse Martinez, PhD, professor of cell biology & anatomy; member, Arizona Cancer Center)
Nathan Allen, Cienega High School (mentor Russell Witte, PhD, assistant professor of optical sciences and radiology)
Internet tools for exploration and collaboration
The SIMI program also introduces participants to new technologies under development, including the first-ever broadband Internet-based Virtual Clinical Research Center (VCRC) and the Medical Ignorance Exploratorium (MIEx). The VCRC and MIEx provide access to specialized medical information, including videos and multimedia applications for student research.
Assisted by the UA’s Arizona Telemedicine Program and partnerships with other institutions, the VCRC and MIEx create live, Internet-based, age-appropriate and culturally-sensitive collaborative experiences that span clinical research topics, from artificial hearts to breast cancer to gene therapy.
Similar to the concept of Second Life®, the students become skilled “Questionators” who surf the Internet for resources and create, navigate and query expanding “Islands of Medical Ignorance” as members of multidisciplinary clinical and translational research teams.
The MIEx was initiated in the summer of 2005 by the UA College of Medicine’s Information Technology Services under the guidance of Peter Crown, PhD, multimedia collaboratory producer with the UA College of Medicine Department of Surgery. Part of the MIEx, called the Collaboratory Space, enables small groups of students to work together on a project via the Internet at any time and wherever they are located.
Currently under development and testing is a system with a webcam on each student’s computer that allows group members to see and speak with each other while they discuss a project, edit documents together and share Internet resources. It also enables students to present questions to noted researchers around the country.
“Showcasing clinical research and clinical research teams in this collaborative, inquiry-driven, Internet-based environment helps recruit the diverse clinical research teams of the future, forging new pathways of discovery and educating the public about clinical research, thereby facilitating the translation of basic science advances from bench to bedside to community,” says Dr. Witte.
The SIMI Research Program encourages the students to maintain contact with the researchers, professors and practitioners throughout the year. “Our goal is to give these students a positive research experience that will stimulate inquiry and collaboration and also encourage them to go on to college, where some will continue their research and ultimately enter medical school as well as a wide variety of graduate programs and other health fields,” Dr. Witte says.
For more information about the UA Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance (SIMI) Research Program for High School Students, visit the Web site: www.ignorance.medicine.arizona.edu.