Tufts Medical School summer program provides high school students with research, mentorship opportunities

Courtesy Nicholas Pfosi

Founded in 1989, Teachers and High School Students Program (TAHSS) at the Tufts School of Medicine aims to provide a bridge between high school students from the Greater Boston area and the medical school community. The program has been offering students interested in medicine and healthcare academic and research opportunities, as well as access to faculty mentors for more than two decades.

The program began as an extension of the the School of Medicine’s Minority High School Tutorial PLUS Program and the Minority High School Research Apprenticeship Program, which aimed to provide minority students with access to student medical tutors and summer research opportunities, respectively, according to the TAHSS website. In 1999, TAHSS became a joint project of the School of Medicine and the National Center for Resources Minority Initiative: K-12 Teachers and High School Students, a National Institutes of Health-supported program.  

Today, TAHSS students participate in a five-week-long program over summer vacation and receive a stipend for up to 25 hours of weekly participation in various clinical and bench research positions throughout health sciences campuses in the Boston area, according to TAHSS’ website. In addition, students are expected to partake in independent study and present their findings at the end of the program.

According to Program Administrator for Multicultural Affairs Marlene Jreaswec, TAHSS started as an outreach program for poor or minority high school students to meet health professionals, gain access to research experience and find mentoring opportunities.

The admission process for the program is highly competitive and involves a selection committee, according to Jreaswec. Students must be invited to interview for the program and are evaluated on several factors, including their transcript, letters of recommendation and a personal statement, much like what applicants must produce when applying to medical school, she said.

The program received over 100 applications this year, according to Jreaswec.  The applications are read by a selection committee composed of approximately half a dozen members, including Jreaswec and Dr. Joyce Sackey, dean of Multicultural Affairs and Global Health, as well as physicians who work in the Tufts University Medical Center and Medical School professors.

“A student must not necessarily have a 4.0 [GPA], but must show an interest in the sciences, must show growth,” she said. “And although it’s sometimes harder to gauge that when looking at the application of a 10th grader as opposed to a 12th grader, the letters of recommendation [will] show [if] they are well-rounded students, [if] they have extra-curricular activities, [if] they volunteer and give to the society as those things matter.”

Jreaswec said the program has seen growth in the strength of applicants over the years.

“I’ve seen development in the caliber of the student[s],” she said. “They tend to be very bright and motivated students. We get a lot of students from underserved [urban] communities, as those are the students that we tend to target the most, but we are seeing more students from the suburbs getting involved as well.”

Due to the growing demand for the program and increasing quality of applicants, the program administration hopes to open up TAHSS to a larger pool of students in the future, Jreaswec said.

According to Jreaswec, expanding program funding would allow for such growth. TAHSS, however, no longer receives funding from the National Institutes of Health and is solely funded by the School of Medicine. The administration has discussed ways to increase funding to facilitate the growth it wishes to see, Jreaswec said.

According to Sackey, who, in addition to her role as dean, is also an associate professor of medicine, the most important factor that prevents the program from continuous expansion is a lack of mentors.

“Finding mentors from among our busy faculty who will be willing and available to work with high school students for an entire summer remains a challenge,” Sackey told the Daily in an email.

During the program, students have the ability to decide their area of research for independent study. Past research projects include the impact of gentrification on immigrants in Boston, work in pediatrics and oral cancer studies. Rachel Zhang, a 2015 alumna of TAHSS from Westford Academy in Westford, Mass., explained that conducting a research project provided her with a new set of practical skills.

“It made me better in researching techniques because I was not familiar in a lab format,” she said. “[I also learned] critical thinking [skills], what to do with research procedures and the tools that you use in lab.”

The program also requires anatomy and physical diagnosis classes taught by Tufts medical students, according to Jreaswec. These courses are intended to expose students to graduate-level laboratory-based science.

“The classes are taught at a level that 10th to 12th graders can understand and are taught by first and second year instructors who have good command of the courses,” Jreaswec said.

The teachers are carefully chosen based on their past experience with high school students and teaching capacity to allow for a conducive learning environment, according to Jreaswec.

“The medical students…knew how to explain in ways that even the most amateur people could have gotten,” Kisha James, a 2015 alumna of the program and current junior at Waldorf High School in Belmont, Mass., said.

The participants also have the opportunity to interact with and learn from professionals in the medical field through field trips led by graduate students as well as the mentorship aspect of the program. This year, the group visited the Museum of History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital during the program, according to Zhang.

James emphasized the importance of the mentoring and shadowing aspect of the program. She identified the highlight of the program as attending her mentor’s practice in Arlington.

“He has a family practice there with maybe four other doctors, and he let me shadow his interns and also him,” she said. “We got to meet a very wide variety of people because it was a family practice so we met with toddlers … We met with middle-aged people; we met with recovering drug addicts … I got a giant overview of what being a family doctor is all about.”

According to the information provided on the TAHSS website, even after the program has run its course, mentoring and support is still available for former students. The program office often checks in with students and provides information on upcoming conferences, the college application process and financial aid.

Additionally, some students who build strong relationships with the mentors, faculty, physicians and hospitals they work with may remain for the rest of the summer or return at some point in the future to continue researching, according to Jreaswec and student participants.

Some former TAHSS students go on to have careers in healthcare and dentistry, Jreaswec said.

According to Wang, a senior at Quincy High School in Quincy, Mass., TAHSS has helped her become more clear about her future career path.

“Prior to applying to the TAHSS program, I wanted to do something in the medical field and so I applied to the TAHSS program specifically just to explore different fields of science and to actually help me narrow down what field I wanted to do,” Wang said. “It really helped me.”

Wang also noted that she has now applied to university and hopes to major in biology or biochemistry and follow a pre-med track.

“The most beneficial aspect of the program for me, other from narrowing down what I actually want to do in the future, [was that] I also got to know a lot of people from different parts of the world,” she said.

Wang expressed her appreciation of the diversity of not only the program’s high school participants, but also of the medical students and professionals involved. She noted that the program created a sense of community between participants that still exists after the program has ended. According to Wang and James, the 2015 cohort is still tightly knit and interacts on social media.

“I would recommend [TAHSS] very, very highly,” James said. “I would do it every year if I could.”