When Shezda Afrin was studying for the MCATs, she used a binder from a program she participated in during high school to prepare. An alumna from the Penn Academy for Reproductive Sciences (PARS) 2014 summer cohort, Afrin spent four weeks in a clinical lab learning embryo development, IVF, and placenta formation. “I only had 10th-grade biology before I started,” says Afrin. The knowledge, hands-on experience, and lessons from top experts in the field of reproductive science was so valuable that she referenced what she learned throughout her college career at Penn and Drexel, and in applying for med school.
Afrin is just one alumnae from 10 years of PARS cohorts. In all, 227 high school girls, the majority from the School District of Philadelphia, have taken part in PARS. This program is a collaboration between Penn’s Institute of Regenerative Medicine (IRM) and the Epigenetic Institute, with the leadership of Marisa Bartolomei, the Perelman Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, and Jamie Shuda, director of the IRM Life Science Outreach. It is currently funded by the NIH.
PARS began hosting the student research opportunities a decade ago, with its first grant from the NIH, to do community education and public engagement. The motivation for a reproductive science-specific program was tied to the objective of reaching out to high school students, especially girls, who apply for a four-week workshop to learn how science has informed women’s health. The senior faculty who volunteer their time are big names in epigenetics and reproductive health, and are joined by postdocs and grad students.
Shuda has a goal to inform the public about Penn’s work in regenerative biology and stem cell research. “We should be educating students about the science behind their bodies, and women in particular,” she says. “We’re empowering young women to ask questions about their bodies, and to see that they can do this science as a career.”
Afrin, who grew up in a Muslim family, says she never had exposure to reproductive science. “We didn’t talk about it at home, and I wasn’t learning about it in school,” she says. Afrin’s advisers included Samantha Butts, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and Monica Mainigi, the William Shippen, Jr. Assistant Professor of Human Reproduction, who extended an internship to Afrin after the PARS workshops. “It was the peak of my high school career,” Afrin says. For two years, Afrin interned in the laboratory, then moved on to the IVF lab, and stem cell epigenetics.
For many of the students, coming from a low-income background or a high school with no hands-on lab experience, they not only learn about reproductive science, but actually perform lab research. One example: In learning how environmental factors may manipulate how genes are passed down and expressed, girls grow yeast in a lab and see if environmental toxins introduced to the yeast could affect the regulation of a gene. The research is part of a larger study of hormone disruption. For example, BPA is a known hormone disrupter, and hormonal imbalance can cause infertility. In a PARS lab, students learn about BPA exposure in a mouse model.
On the clinical side, students observe the fertilization of mouse eggs with sperm to witness cell division, perform ultrasounds on hearts (with medical school patient volunteers), and learn how to suture using kiwis. “The objectives are to instill confidence in students and to learn science by doing science,” says Shuda.
Mentoring students about their future schooling is a large focus of the program. Many students never considered science or research as an option for their future. Not all girls in the program are going to go to competitive schools like Penn, and many students who do go to college will be the first generation in their family to do so. Exposure to graduate students and postdocs gives PARS alumnae a realistic understanding of what a science higher education path will entail.
PARS is specifically designed for high school girls and the small cohorts give these students a chance to learn from each other and the Penn community. Another high school program, the Penn Academy for Skin Health (PASH), has been modeled after the success of PARS and is offered to young men and women to do lab research in dermatology science. PASH students also complete a four-Saturday series and can go on to paid summer internships in Penn’s Skin Biology and Diseases Resource-based Center and at Thomas Jefferson University. PASH is also supported by the NIH.
The takeaways from these programs are bigger than the students’ end-of-summer research presentations. The experts in the reproductive and dermatology health fields who volunteer on Saturdays are “really outstanding role models,” Shuda says.
Afrin told her family and friends about PARS, and talked with other students who were looking for the kind of research opportunities they weren’t finding in high school. A cousin of her friend ended up taking part in PARS because of Afrin’s enthusiasm.
The first cohort of PARS girls are now at a point in their education when students would be applying to med school. Through on-going mentoring and career exposures, PARS makes this a viable option.