Teaching the Medical Scientists of Tomorrow

Michelle Aberle, DDS (far left), director of the PACE program at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, with this year's class of biomedical research course students: (front row, left to. right) Caitlin Crahan, Miriam Melendez, Mia Grayson, Marissa Mak, Olivia Smith, Penelope Edillor, Thea DeGala, Emily Ngov, Hannah Deighton, (back row, left to right) Sophie Kieng, Matt Crane, Christine Morrison, Mary Rachel Alquizola, Gabriela Cooper, Lorraine Greenwood, Valerie Zawicki and Steele Speelman.

Imagine working alongside a top medical researcher while you're still in high school. For 17 seniors at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, it's no dream. It's what they did this past year under a mentorship program that includes Cedars-Sinai faculty.

Working in teams, the students learned the basics of conducting research and then met weekly off-site with their mentors to create and execute research projects. On Feb. 23, the budding scientists presented their study results to parents, staff and scientists in Harvey Morse Auditorium. Their topics ranged over lung cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, asthma, drug-resistant microbes and more.

The students are graduates of a biomedical research course offered each year in conjunction with the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), a research partnership that includes Cedars-Sinai and three other area institutions. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the course aims to encourage young, aspiring scientists to consider careers in medical science. It's wildly popular and highly competitive, accepting only about half the student applicants.

"Typically, students tell me this was the most fun class of any they took in high school and had the greatest impact on their lives," said Michelle Aberle, DDS, who directs PACE, a gifted-students magnet program at the Long Beach school that coordinates the course. "They get to be in a work environment with real physicians and researchers and get to know how they think and communicate."

Mariko Ishimori, MD, associate site director for the CTSI at Cedars-Sinai, knows first hand about the course's impact. She said that a student she mentored in 2009, who has since graduated from college, now works in a UCLA dermatology laboratory doing basic research. The student is weighing multiple offers from medical schools that want to enroll her. "It's really exciting," said Ishimori, an assistant professor of medicine and a staff physician in the Department of Medicine's Division of Rheumatology.

Students Thea DeGala (left) and Marissa Mak from Long Beach Polytechnic High School present their research project in Harvey Morse Auditorium.

Ishimori and Aberle said many course graduates later pursue careers in the medical sciences. To learn just how many, the program is conducting a study of past graduates. More than 200 students have completed the course since its inception in 2000.

Mentors are critical to the course's success. "It's a lot of work to get high school students up to speed on research," Ishimori said. "But it's worth the effort. It's fun to see the students be inspired by the research projects they are working on."

This year's mentors from Cedars-Sinai were Mazen Noureddin, MD, the director of the Fatty Liver Program in the Comprehensive Transplant Center; and Joshua Pevnick, MD, MSHS, an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine and a hospitalist in the Inpatient Specialty Program. CTSI partners UCLA and the Los Angeles Biomedical Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center each fielded three mentors.

Student Marissa Mak, who worked with Noureddin studying a potential treatment for cirrhosis of the liver, said the experience "makes you realize how important science is. It's like — wow, working in this field is going to do something for people. It made me more interested in research."