New Teen Internship Program Builds Awareness of Key Public Health Issues

High School Students Spend a Year Investigating Public Health Issues in Their Communities

By Kate Vidinsky

Rashaad Ali and Nusaibah Aldalali look at a petri dish
Rashaad Ali and Nusaibah Aldalali, students in the second cohort of the San Francisco Health Investigators Program, work in a lab at UCSF. Photo courtesy of SF HI 

On a blustery evening at UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus, a group of local high school students and their families gathered in a brightly lit room in Genentech Hall to view public health campaigns the teenagers had created

The evening’s poster symposium represented the culmination of a new yearlong public health-focused internship for the high school students.

Javier Li, a student at San Francisco International High School, wore a sticker on his sweater that read, “Ask me about vaccines!” His poster was accompanied by an iPad propped on a stand showcasing a website he had helped create to promote vaccine awareness.

Li and the other 18 students who presented posters at the May 11 symposium were the first group to complete UCSF’s new San Francisco Health Investigators Program (SF HI). The program enrolls juniors from public high schools across the city to spend a year learning about key public health issues, develop targeted messaging campaigns addressing those issues, and conduct survey-based research to assess the effectiveness of the campaigns.

“Science has always been my favorite thing, and this program has made that even more so,” Li said.

Public Health Issues Take Center Stage

Supported by a five-year Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health, the San Francisco Health Investigators Program is the latest addition to UCSF’s acclaimed Science and Health Education Partnership (SEP).

SEP is a long-running collaboration between UCSF and the San Francisco Unified School District, in which scientists and educators from both organizations join forces to promote high quality science education for K-12 students. Founded in 1987, SEP has become a nationally and internationally recognized model for this type of innovative collaboration.

Ultimately, we hope participants are inspired to pursue a career path in science that keeps them deeply connected to their communities while having real positive impact.

Rebecca Smith, PhD

Co-director of UCSF’s Science and Health Education Partnership

As a new program in SEP, the San Francisco Health Investigators Program focuses on leveraging participating students’ cultural knowledge as they take on the role of researchers and investigate current public health issues in their communities.

For the program’s inaugural year, the topics of interest were immunity and infectious disease, with a more specific focus on vaccination, pertussis and the Zika virus.

According to Rebecca Smith, PhD, co-director of SEP, the unique approach of SF HI aims to empower students to improve health in their home communities by designing messaging campaigns that build awareness, counter misconceptions and inform health behaviors.

“In writing this grant, the idea was to recruit students to work together and focus on giving back to their communities,” Smith said. “Ultimately, we hope participants are inspired to pursue a career path in science that keeps them deeply connected to their communities while having real positive impact.”

A Yearlong Commitment and Transformative Experience

When starting SF HI last summer, Wallenberg High School student Aleks Jones had heard the term herd immunity before, but figured it had something to do with cows. Jones’s teacher initially nominated them for the program, and, after a lengthy application process, which includes a written application and interviews, Jones was thrilled to get in.

an informational poster describes that "Mosquitoes are the deadliest animal on earth, responsible for deaths of nearly 1 million people, every year." It lists these other stats: Sharks: 10; Lions: 100; Crocodiles: 1,000; Snakes: 50,000; People: 500,000
Students who participated in the inaugural San Francisco Health Investigators Program created informational campaigns around current public health issues, including mosquito-borne viruses.

Upon acceptance, Jones and the rest of the first cohort of SF HI students – representing 12 different San Francisco public schools – attended a month-long summer intensive workshop at UCSF. There they learned about the principles of public health, the scientific background of the issues they were studying, how to conduct survey research and data analysis, and the basics of marketing and messaging strategies.

Jones completed the workshop over last summer with “pretty awesome” new friends and a thorough understanding of herd immunity as a key factor in preventing the spread of infectious disease.

Working in small groups, the students selected pertussis, vaccination or Zika/mosquito-borne illness as their primary topic for producing an awareness campaign, explained Ben Koo, PhD, SF HI program coordinator. The groups surveyed their communities to assess the general scope of knowledge of each topic and quickly realized the importance of producing accurate and accessible messages.

“Many of our interns have family in the Latin American countries most impacted by Zika, and yet this initial survey showed that many of their friends and family knew very little about the virus, how it spreads, and the risk it presents to pregnant women and their fetuses,” Koo said. “Suddenly, these topics were really hitting home, and the students realized the importance of getting the right kind of information out there.”

Bringing Messages to Life

Once the students analyzed their initial survey data, they zeroed in on the type of messages they wanted to convey and selected the best medium for their individual awareness campaigns – static messages, whiteboard videos or websites.

The interns conducted focus groups with other high school students to revise and improve their messaging content and then worked with professional graphic designers, web designers and video producers – including UCSF alum Florie Mar, PhD, founder of Youreka Science – to bring their visions to life.

The final public awareness campaigns debuted last fall at the Bay Area Science Festival at AT&T Park – a yearly event that is organized by SEP. Donning matching t-shirts and armed with iPads to showcase the messages and collect data, the SF HI interns randomly surveyed 500 of the festival’s attendees to assess the effectiveness of their work.

“When you look at the data, it’s really fascinating to see how these messages resonated with the general public,” Koo said.

Realizing Potential Through a Supportive Community

When she started the program last summer, La’Raya Williams of Leadership High School said she knew very little about the importance of vaccines and next to nothing about Zika. She was initially intimidated by all there was to learn, but quickly found comfort in the community around her.

“Here you have the support. They understand what I’m saying, and we work together as a group,” Williams said. “Sometimes it was hard for me to keep up, but someone was always ready to help me understand.”

This summer, a new crop of 20 rising juniors arrived at UCSF to begin the second year of the SF HI Program. The new group will delve into the critical issue of antibiotic resistance over the next year, and the transformative experiences they encounter will likely mirror those of Williams and the rest of the inaugural class of SF HI interns.

“We aren’t looking for students that already have everything put together but instead want to help students realize the potential they have,” Smith said. “When a teacher nominates a student for our programs, that teacher is saying ‘I see potential in you.’ That is a powerful assertion that leads to tremendous outcomes.”