Summer Programs at UCSF Provide Science Opportunities, Promote Diversity

By Kate Vidinsky

Ricard Cuellar and Yulian Mikheev disect a brain
High school students Ricardo Cuellar (left) and Yulian Mikheev dissect a brain at Brain Camp, a summer program created by UCSF School of Medicine students. Photo by Susan Merrell

As students head back to school this year, many carry with them new knowledge learned during camps and programs held across UC San Francisco that provided enriching science and health care experiences.

Despite continued efforts to increase diversity in medicine, racial and ethnic minority groups remain sorely underrepresented among health care professionals. This lack of diversity can have a serious impact on our ability to care for the nearly 40 percent of the current U.S. population who identify as minorities.

With this in mind, UCSF faculty, students and staff have over the years set up several unique summer programs that expose young students from underrepresented minorities to science and clinical research in hopes of making a positive impact on their lives while inspiring them to pursue careers in research or health care. 

Striving to Meet an Unmet Need

This year, UCSF added to its lineup of summer camps with a new neurology-focused program called Brain Camp, which offered an immersive weeklong experience for underserved San Francisco high school students completely free of charge.

The impetus for the new Brain Camp came from the continual unmet need for diversity in health and science professions, explained Devan Diwanji, an MD/PhD candidate who led the charge in creating the camp.

Kathia Vargas practices knot-tying and suturing on a fabric model of a skin opening
Kathia Vargas, a high school student, practices knot-tying and suturing on a fabric model of a skin opening during the Brain Camp held at UCSF. Photo by Susan Merrell

“UCSF recognizes that diversity isn't a hollow catchphrase – diversity in the health care workforce makes us more proficient as providers, and enhancing the diversity of our workforce goes a long way to building trust with the communities we serve,” Diwanji said.

The first annual Brain Camp welcomed 10th-12th graders from seven San Francisco high schools for jam-packed days July 31 through Aug. 4. Participants learned about the wide variety of research and clinical opportunities in neuroscience, while engaging in hands-on activities like suturing, brain dissection and performing a basic neurological exam.

“This entire effort has been student-organized and student-run, and what they put together is stellar,” said S. Andrew Josephson, MD, chair of the UCSF Department of Neurology and the camp’s lead adviser. “This program provides a great opportunity to tap into an extraordinarily important pipeline of individuals who can contribute to the richness of our neuroscience community.”

A Longstanding Commitment to Promoting Diversity

Brain Camp joins the ranks of other longstanding UCSF summer programs for elementary through undergraduate school-aged students that offer a wide range of fun, educational experiences while promoting diversity in medicine.

students race in handmade boats made from cardboard in a pool at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus
The UCSF Summer Science Camp for fifth- and sixth-grade students includes building boats and trying to make it across a pool at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus. Photo by Barbara Ries

Since 2007, the UCSF Summer Science Camp has welcomed rising fifth- and sixth-graders into the world of hands-on, inquiry-based science and technology. The camp, which is offered free of charge, was established by Heather Hertema, PharmD, a former UCSF pharmacy student, who wanted to excite, motivate and inspire kids who might not otherwise be exposed to the fun of science. Hertema returned to the camp this year as a special visitor.

Wrapping up its fifth year, the Junior Academy at the UCSF Orthopaedic Trauma Institute brings together incoming high school seniors from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFG) for an eight-week program that introduces students to the many sides of health care. The group of 15 Bay Area students attends workshops and lectures, while engaging in case studies and shadowing UCSF physicians at ZSFG.

Hosted by the UCSF NURTURE Center at the Mission Bay Campus, the DiverseCity summer camp offers sports instruction along with a specialized curriculum centered on diversity, health education, and life skills development to fourth- through ninth-grade children from diverse backgrounds. Campers who attended this summer’s June session played basketball, learned CPR, attended heart health lectures, and even graduated in a “white coat” ceremony.

Supporting the Next Generation of Health Providers

Several other summer programs focus more specifically on inspiring older students and young adults to pursue careers in research and health care.

Ilse Pastor talks about her poster presentation
Ilse Pastor (center), a student in the Summer Research Program, explains her poster, titled, “Media Multitasking-related Differences in Cognition and Academic Achievement in Middle Childhood.” The program enrolls undergraduate students who show a strong interest in pursuing a PhD in the health sciences. Photo by Susan Merrell

Among these is the annual High School Intern Program, established by UCSF’s Science and Health Education Partnership, which places San Francisco public high school students in laboratories to conduct biomedical research under the guidance of a UCSF mentor.

The UCSF Summer Research Program enrolls undergraduate students who show a strong interest in pursuing a PhD in the health sciences. Participants work with UCSF faculty members on research projects, while taking part in seminars, lectures and social events, creating a cohesive and supporting community.

For the last decade, the Pre-Health Undergraduate Program, or PUP, has enrolled undergraduate students from underrepresented minority groups who plan to attend dental, medical, nursing, pharmacy or physical therapy professional schools after graduation. PUP, which is supported by the Clinical & Translational Science Institute, pairs participating undergraduates with current UCSF students to build strong mentoring relationships while training participants in clinical and translational research.

“The PUP program aims to produce leaders in patient oriented research while promoting diversity that will improve patient care and science as a whole,” said Peter Chin-Hong, MD, a UCSF professor of medicine who oversees the program. “When people from different perspectives come together and ask different questions, this leads to innovation and moves science forward.”