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Partnership brings Boston high school, Tufts med students together for research

Published: Friday, February 8, 2013

Updated: Saturday, February 9, 2013 13:02

Tufts medical students collaborate with English High School students to implement health initiatives

courtesy Luke Phelan

When it comes to the study of public health and medicine, the Health Impact Partnership (HIP) at the School of Medicine aims to bridge the gap between hands-on experience and academic knowledge for both medical students and local high school students.

The program began in February 2012 and is based on a partnership between Tufts medical students at the university’s Boston campus and students from The English High School in Jamaica Plain. Each semester, the program gives selected high school students the opportunity to conduct research on a health topic of their choice with the guidance and support of Tufts medical students. The program culminates in an event where the English High School students can showcase their work.

HIP originated as a program for Tufts medical students to volunteer their time and academic expertise to help English High School students with their annual science fair projects. According to HIP founder and second-year Tufts medical student Emily Frank, the program’s extension was developed to address various shortcomings of the science fair collaborations.

“The idea has always been to teach leadership and advocacy through public health projects, and our initial approach to doing that was to help students with their science fair projects,” Frank said. Science fairs became a public health intervention when “it turned out that not only did students have extremely varying levels of interest in their science projects, but so did the faculty that were promoting it,” Frank said.

Students at English High are required to fill out an application to participate in the program, and not all students were originally chosen. However, HIP coordinators have loosened the requirements to focus on a student’s commitment to attending meetings.

“It was structured as a paid internship, so last year we chose 25 students out of 35 applicants, and there’s always some attrition, so we finished the program with 10 students,” Frank said. “This year, we’ve struggled a lot more with involvement, and so we’ve taken anyone. There’s still an application that’s part of what students are doing, but again, if they’re committed and they’re ready to show up [at] 3:30 [p.m.] on a Friday on a weekly basis, we’d be happy to have them.”

According to Frank, there is a wide variety of topics that interest the students at English High School, like nutrition, drug and alcohol abuse, diabetes and hypertension and reproductive health. Students choose their projects based on their interests and their ability to create positive healthy changes among their peers by sharing the results of their research. One past HIP project resulted in a cookbook filled with nutritious recipes.

First-year Tufts medical student Nate Simmons reflected on his mentoring experience with a student who worked on her second HIP project this session, having successfully completed one last spring.

“Initially, [she] wanted to design a cooking competition…[and] the winner would have their entree in the school cafeteria,” Simmons said. “But due to time constraints, she switched over to the larger group project…[and to] giving out [a] healthy cookbook.”

Occasionally, students’ topic choices involve subjects that don’t mesh with a typical American public high school curriculum. HIP coordinators have made headway in allowing the students to research controversial topics surrounding issues like sexual and reproductive health, according to Frank. “Students have consistently demonstrated interest in doing some sort of reproductive health project,” she said. “For the first session or two, it seemed better to focus on less controversial topics, but this session that is something that they might tackle and we’ll definitely need to have a conversation with school administration about what their policies are,” Frank said.

However advantageous HIP is to its participants from English High School, the benefits of such a program are not lost on its coordinators and mentors. Because many of the program’s medical students come from white, middle to upper-class communities, experiences with at-risk youth in the Jamaica Plain community have been helpful when it comes to understanding how socioeconomic status can affect a teenager’s ability to learn about mental and physical health.

As Frank relinquishes some of her leadership responsibilities as HIP’s founder to focus on her own education, first-year Tufts medical student Teresa Scontras is transitioning into a leadership position in the group, along with fellow first-year Tufts medical student Clayton Barnes. According to Scontras, the English High School experiences is vastly different from the high school experience of many mentors, who tend to be graduates of private high schools or distinguished public schools.

“I’m from a suburban small town in southern Maine, and our high school is primarily white students from middle-class families, and so I wasn’t really exposed to a diverse student body in high school,” Scontras said. “I’m not quite sure what the graduation rate is at English, but it’s not very high and that was kind of a surprise to me. Every single member we have is not from the United States. English is their second or third or fourth language, so that was definitely an eye opener.”

According to Frank, while HIP attracts a number of Tufts medical students with interests in various different medical practices, pediatrics and community health seem to be popular choices among mentors. Scontras, who shadowed her primary care physician prior to entering Tufts Medical School, explained the appeal of working with at-risk teenagers.

“My interest in pediatrics was definitely one of the reasons I wanted to join because when you think of pediatrics, you think of little toddlers,” Contras said. “But these are high school kids,…so I wanted to try and get more interaction with people of that age. I really liked the vision of …having these students come up with interventions for community health and then us helping them put it to action.”

Moving forward, HIP’s coordinators are looking to improve the program by attracting more students, expanding to other Boston public schools and finding Spanish-speaking mentors to improve the working relationship between mentor and mentee.

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