Grooming Scientists For Camden

Posted: August 17, 1988

There she stood, this would-be open-heart surgeon, untangling cat intestines as she spoke of how she once had wanted to be a hairdresser.

Chanel Reed, 14, had wanted to be a hair stylist because she liked being creative with her hands. But since she became part of Camden's pipeline to the sciences last year, her hands aim for higher pursuits.

Now, she said, "I want to explore the body, explore what it can do, what goes on inside yourself, makes you tick."

Reed, who is entering her sophomore year at Camden High School, has participated for the last two summers in the Camden Science Pipeline, a three- year program designed to stir enthusiasm for math and science, to increase the students' chances at succeeding in those subjects in high school and

college, and to help them make science a career.

This summer more than 100 students have been participating in the project's three components:

* The Early Bird program on Rutgers University's Camden campus, for city youth entering the ninth grade. This component is aimed at sparking enthusiasm for sciences through lab work and counseling.

* The Boost program at Glassboro State College for minority students entering the 10th grade. The students are tutored in biology and chemistry to reinforce their understanding of science and math and prepare for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test.

* The Science and Motivation Apprenticeship Program, or SMAP, a minority summer internship at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in which students assist scientists in research and the scientists in turn serve as their mentors. Research projects run the gamut, from studying the effects of AIDS on the human brain to monitoring diabetes in the offspring of diabetic rats.

The programs are geared toward an academic mix of students. For the Early Bird and Boost programs, teachers nominate both average students and those who show a potential to soar academically. SMAP students are the creme of the class - averaging As and Bs.

The Pipeline is so successful that some students are hired to work at the University of Medicine and Dentistry during the school year; former students are hired as lab assistants while on vacation from college.

The Pipeline program , which has cost about $150,000 this year, receives

funds from various sources, including the dean of the School of Osteopathic Medicine, the state Department of Higher Education, the William Penn Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the American Diabetes Association and the American Chemical Society.

The SMAP program is considered a model by its primary benefactor, the National Institutes of Health, which finances 323 such programs in the country. Dr. Marjorie Tingle, who oversees those NIH programs, said the University of Medicine and Dentistry's stands out because its connection with students doesn't end with the summer.

The university is tracking the students in hopes that they will someday become associated with the school - first as medical students at the university's School of Osteopathic Medicine and later as faculty. The medical school has gone so far as to take high school seniors to visit schools such as Stockton State College to expose them to a college environment.

So far, each of the 14 student apprentices participating in the first two years of the SMAP program has gone to college and is enrolled in degree programs as a science major.

Matthew Freund, the adjunct professor of physiology at the university who established the SMAP program, said that SMAP students were highly motivated and bright, but that many still had low expectations of themselves. SMAP tries to erase those mental limits.

"These kids are going on," said Freund. "These kids are dynamos."

The Pipeline, said Freund, attempts to show the students: " 'Look, you can become a professor in medicine, you can become a brain surgeon.'

"That doesn't guarantee they'll get there. The obstacles are tremendous, as you know."

The chances that minorities will survive the rigors of medical school are even slimmer than for non-minorities because so few apply to such schools, said Dr. Richard DeJesus, the university's associate director of minority affairs.

According to 1986 figures on minority applicants published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, only nine Latinos and 89 blacks from New Jersey, of a total 1,209 students, applied to medical schools around the country for the 1986-87 academic year.

The statistics have implications for Camden on another front, because physicians tend to settle and practice near or in the communities they are

from, DeJesus said. One of the goals of the medical school is to produce doctors to serve Camden.

The small minority presence in New Jersey medical schools also is a reflection of local test scores. Sixty percent of Camden's ninth graders this year failed the math component of New Jersey's High School Proficiency Test. As of 1989, students must pass the test before they graduate from high school.

The Camden ninth graders - 755 took the test - ranked second-lowest in the state.

But Freund was willing to take a chance on the students because of the overall academic environment at Camden High, where the first students were recruited. He said the SMAP program was an excellent opportunity for the medical institution, which is located at 401 Haddon Ave., to give something back to Camden.

"We were in Camden," said Freund, "but were not part of Camden. We weren't really contributing anything."

Three years ago, the National Institutes of Health funded internships for three Camden students entering the 12th grade. The University of Medicine and Dentistry matched the grant, funding internships for another three students. All receive $1,500 stipends for the eight-week program and assist in research.

The students attend weekly discussions guided by researchers on their projects, with subjects ranging from teen suicide to the effects of space travel on astronauts. Some students also participate in journal groups, in which they are required to follow research articles and present reports to the teams with which they work. At the end of the summer program, they also present reports on the research in which they assisted.


In fact, Peter Vasilenko, University of Medicine and Dentistry assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, went this year before a gathering of the American Diabetes Association to present a paper in which Kenny King, a 1988 Camden High graduate, contributed substantial research assistance.

The research involved a study of the impact of diabetes on the offspring of animals with the disease. King was in charge of noting physical changes in the research rats.

Now, Kenny King, 19, is attending Emory University in Atlanta on a four- year scholarship and this summer worked as a lab assistant to Vasilenko as well as a counselor in the Early Bird program. This year, his 17-year-old brother Darrin is an apprentice with the research team studying rheumatoid arthritis. Both are bound for medical school and want to be pediatricians.

The brothers always knew they wanted to be doctors. As children, one of their favorite toys was a chemistry set, a Christmas gift from their parents. Later came a microscope. This year, Darrin gave his 7-year-old sister a microscope of her own.

Kenny King's stint as a counselor this summer reminded him of his high school days and of how he had grown from his apprenticeship.

"I had never been in that situation before, not even in that kind of building," said King, a slender-faced young man. "I became more enlightened."

Before SMAP, he said, "I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn't know how to go about it."

King often turned to his mentor, Vasilenko, for advice, and when he was homesick last year, Vasilenko's staff prepared him a care package of food and school supplies.

King, who plans to practice medicine in the Camden area, is working toward an undergraduate degree in biological anthropology, with a concentration in premed courses.

He said he had decided to major in anthropology because it offered a well- rounded degree program and helped him to understand medicine. He enjoyed learning about "the notion of the creation of man, the systems of the body so different from prehistoric man, and all the changes that the human body has been through because of evolution."

Apprentice Carmen Rodriguez, a 17-year-old senior at Woodrow Wilson High School, spends her days at the University of Medicine and Dentistry preparing cultural media for and examining photographic impressions of cells to detect abnormal chromosomes.

Lydia McMorrow, assistant professor and director of cytogenetics at the university, said she had given Rodriguez more responsibility than most college students because Rodriguez was a go-getter, and many of the college interns ''don't show the intellectual curiosity."

"Whatever she does, she'll do it," said McMorrow of Rodriguez's college career. "She doesn't want to leave when it's time to go."

Rodriguez also is participating in the Rutgers Scholars Program for high school students, taking college courses such as calculus. She wants to be a doctor.

Rodriguez said she believed that other students were afraid of science,

because they thought "you have to be a genius to do it."

"They take the easy way out," she said.

Pipeline coordinators hope to nip such attitudes before students reach high school, so that they will follow an academic track toward careers in science.

"If you don't get it right in high school," said DeJesus, "it ain't going to happen. There's no way to make up for it in college."

Last year, the Early Bird program was implemented; this year, the Boost program was created as a second tier of learning for the students.

"Counseling is an important part" of the Pipeline, said DeJesus. "If you get them before anyone else gets to them and give them the right message . . . before people give them the perception that science is hard and you can't do science. . . .

"They're right at the point of deciding who they really are and what they're going to be," he said.

Chanel Reed thought she wanted to be a hairdresser when she grew up. But she found she was challenged more by the world of science that opened to her last year when she participated in the Early Bird program.

Last week, as part of the Boost program, she maneuvered a cat dissection with confidence, sticking her gloved fingers through the meaty folds of the animal's digestive tract.

"This cat was fat," she said as her dissection assistant looked on.

The assistant, Melanie Arthur, a 15-year-old entering sophomore at Camden High, wants to be a nurse. She said she had benefited from the program because it had given her the chance to meet like-minded students. "You meet different people than you normally have all around you - that want to do something more with their lives, but at the same time they're fun," she said.

Inside the Early Bird pipeline at Rutgers, the room smelled of chemicals and freshly dissected fetal pigs as instructor Hedley Thame explained the early history of medicine.

"What color were barbershop poles?" asked Thame, who teaches chemistry and is the football and wrestling coach at Camden High.

"Red. It stood for blood," he said. "In the West, when you had a toothache, you'd go to the barber."

"What? Would he shave it?" asked a student.

"If you wanted a bullet out, you'd go to the barber," said Thame. "He had the sharpest knife in town."

The physics component of the program includes such exercises as comparing the speed of sound with the speed of light. The only required work consists of weekly reports on what the students learn in the six-week program. Next year a math course will accompany the lab instruction to strengthen the students' skills in that area.

Camden High physics teacher Darryl Williams, who also teaches the Early Bird physics course, said about a dozen of the students who were in last year's program became so enthusiastic during the school year that they were moved to higher-level science courses.

"They want more," said Williams, a former researcher with the School of Osteopathic Medicine.

Saro Concepcion Jr., 17, figures science is his ticket out of Camden.

Concepcion, who since age 12 has been taking apart radios and televisions ''just to see how they worked," was weighing baby rats in the diabetes research lab last week as he discussed his interest in doing such research. He comes from a family of 11, and his mother is a diabetic. He lives in South Camden near one of the city's busiest drug corners, Fourth and Royden Streets.

"I just want to leave," he said. "I want to leave Camden. I've lived here for 17 years. I've watched my streets get worse. I'm just tired of looking at the streets.

"I feel science is a way out. If I learn more, get smarter, I can make it, and leave this place."

Concepcion is a member of Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church, where he is involved in the choir and a youth group. He also is on the varsity chess team at Camden High School, where he is a student.

"I figure if you hang around smart people," he said, "you become a smart person."

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