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Melissa Cervantes and Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute

May 24, 2017

“As long as I can remember, when anyone asked me what my favorite subject was, it was always science and math,” said Melissa Cervantes, a high school senior based in Oakland, California. Yet, for most of her life, Cervantes did not know anyone with a career in these fields or have any experiences with what it would be like to pursue them. All this changed in the summer of 2016, when, as she shared with DDCF, “I tried new things I never imagined I could have done.”

Cervantes is a participant in the Summer Student Research Program at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI), which is supported through the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Clinical Research Continuum: High School to College initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to provide mentored, hands-on clinical research experiences to select high school students and, thanks to a recent evolution of the foundation’s grants program, to program alumni once they are in college.  The foundation provides support to CHORI and seven other medical institutions across the country to run these rare but crucial programs.

At CHORI last summer, Cervantes dove right into work with her mentor, Dr. Ellen Fung, on groundbreaking biomedical technologies and medical issues related to bone mass and sickle cell disease. The opportunity exposed her to a whole new world of thought—“like thalassemia. I didn’t know what it was before going into CHORI, but I learned a ton about it,” said Cervantes. Alongside Dr. Fung, she also learned about the new DXA software in CHORI’s bone density clinic—technology so new to the institution that staff had yet to use it. Yet, the guidance of a mentor provided Cervantes with adequate support in tackling such novel challenges.

“If I got stuck on anything or didn’t know exactly how to do something, she would always help me. I was using Excel files a lot, which I had never really done before going into CHORI, and we had problems with the [DXA] software at first, and she worked with me on trying to figure all of that out,” said Cervantes. Cervantes greatly appreciated the strong support from her mentor through such day-to-day technical tasks, as well as with more advanced, intellectual challenges. Dr. Fung’s dedication to guiding Cervantes through such experiences was motivated by deep hopes for her mentee.

Dr. Ellen Fung, CHORI, mentorship, high school, DDCF, biomedical research “I wanted her to be aware that there were things outside of her comfort zone in which she could be successful,” said Dr. Fung, who began mentoring at CHORI in 2000 and is also the co-director of the Summer Research Internship program at CHORI and the director of the bone density clinic at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. “In the end, it could be that science is not what she decides to do, but I want her to be confident that it’s a possibility.” 

Mentoring Cervantes was one of the most delightful and surprising experiences Dr. Fung has had. At the close of summer last year, after Cervantes presented her research at a CHORI symposium—even winning the award for Best Poster Presentation from a High School Student—Dr. Fung suggested that they submit an abstract of the research to present at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology.

“I had no idea what it was,” Cervantes said, but, after looking up the event, thought, “Sure, why not?” 

From Dr. Fung’s perspective, many colleagues may have expected her to take an older undergraduate to the conference, but she felt strongly that Cervantes was the right choice. 

At the event, which was held in San Diego in December 2016 and gathered thousands of clinicians, scientists and professionals in the field of hematology, Cervantes was a unique addition to the attendee list: There were no registration categories for her given her high school status, and Dr. Fung had to call the conference registration desk directly to request special permission for her to attend. Cervantes described being extremely nervous but also gratified in a way she had not expected.

“Bringing your data at the end and sharing with others what you’ve found is really cool. It really made me feel good about what I did. Going to San Diego to present it is something that I never would have imagined,” Cervantes said.

While Dr. Fung recalls that Cervantes had been one of the quietest students she had worked with, it soon became clear that Cervantes was growing significantly in confidence, authority and maturity. Dr. Fung recalled that as conference attendees approached the poster, Cervantes easily took the reins, answering questions and presenting their work.  “At one point she [Cervantes] stopped me, and then said, ‘Well, but we also did this…!’ And I was so proud of her,” said Dr. Fung. “Because she wouldn’t have done that in Oakland, she had never done that before, and it was only at that point that she stopped me. She obviously felt comfortable and confident enough in her research and the data, and it was great.”

Cervantes’ experience is exactly the kind of positive, transformative experience that DDCF’s Medical Research Program had hoped for as it developed the Clinical Research Continuum initiative. The Clinical Research Continuum’s goal is to encourage interest in scientific careers among a broad range of high school students—especially demographic groups that have been historically underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and medical (STEM) fields. All eight programs at institutions participating in the Clinical Research Continuum are unique in their particulars, but similar in their use of mentorship and real-life clinical research as methods for encouraging students to pursue these fields. Dr. Fung at CHORI described partly why: “Many of our students don’t have role models at home who are in the medical field, so their only exposure to it is what they’ve heard about, read about or seen on TV. To actually work with a physician one-on-one and see what they do day to day is super helpful for them as they think about their future and ask themselves, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’”

In addition to supporting the aspirations of individual students, the Clinical Research Continuum programs contribute to the health of the biomedical research field. As Dr. Fung explained, “If we continue to put into our science programs individuals that look and think the same, then we’re going to look at and try to solve our issues the same way. But, if we have a more diverse science community, then when we face the next challenge—let’s say, in curing cancer—we’re going to have more creative solutions to the scientific issues. The solutions to problems are always easier when you look at them with different lenses. That’s the beauty of having diversity in STEM."

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Medical Research Program recently evaluated whether its support for the high school summer research programs was achieving its goal, and discovered it was indeed providing a demographically broad range of students with a first, positive sense of the field. Of the 293 high school students who have taken part in the DDCF-supported high school research programs since 2012:

  • 71 percent are female;
  • 37 percent are Black;
  • 37 percent are Hispanic;
  • 64 percent of students’ mothers and 42 percent of students’ fathers had not graduated from college;
  • 88 percent of students had never been part of a research project prior to their summer experience;
  • 93 percent of students expressed that their experience had been positive; and
  • 77 percent stated that the experience had increased their interest in a potential biomedical research career.

While these statistics were encouraging, DDCF’s Medical Research Program staff felt it was equally important to know the path these students followed after graduating high school and what mechanisms existed to support them in their burgeoning scientific interests. Concerningly, for example, a report from the U.S. Department of Education in 2013 had also found that more than half of all African Americans who enter bachelor’s degree programs in STEM disciplines either dropped out of college or changed majors to graduate in a non-STEM field.[1] This finding is among the many reasons the foundation decided in 2016 to expand its support to the eight participating institutions so that they can continue their relationships with high school program alumni and offer them continued research experiences once they are in college.

Cervantes, who heads to St. Olaf College in Minnesota this fall and will be the first of her family to attend college, was hesitant to predict exactly where she would end up. She admitted, though, that following her experience last summer, a very specific and attractive vision of the future now lingers in her imagination. “I can picture myself working in a clinic or in a lab just doing research. I might not have even pictured it as an option before, but I really can see it as one now,” said Cervantes. “I probably will continue to connect with her [Dr. Fung], and maybe see if there’s any more research we can do. So, maybe that could be a next step, which would be really awesome.”




[1] STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields, Statistical Analysis Report, NOVEMBER 2013, http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2014/2014001rev.pdf.