ST. LOUIS • Inside a laboratory filled with beakers, gels and test tubes, Cameron Banks has been working with researcher Joshua Muia to unlock a few of the many mysteries of blood-clotting disorders.
Cameron, 17, isn’t a researcher. He’s a rising senior at Lift for Life Academy, a charter school in St. Louis.
For the past eight weeks, he and 16 other high school students have worked alongside mentors at Washington University’s medical campus on projects furthering research on topics ranging from the central nervous system and airborne diseases, to mutations in small plants.
Their findings, to be presented at a symposium Friday, will inform the research community through yet-to-be published papers, and inevitably, spur further research.
The experience has left Cameron increasingly certain that he wants to go into medicine.
“Now that I’ve gotten in to see the research world, I want to do this more throughout my life,” Cameron said. Dressed in a white lab coat and gloves, he took a break from mixing chemicals and measuring proteins one recent morning. “I’ve always wanted to go into medicine and be a neurologist and maybe do some research on disorders like Alzheimer’s. I didn’t understand what research really was until now.”
And that is the point.
Washington University’s Young Scientist Program is designed to attract more women and minorities to science disciplines at colleges and universities, and to help put them in the pipeline for graduate work.
In addition to the mentoring, the program pays students $2,500 for their work. They also get instruction on applying for college and financial aid, to increase the likelihood they’ll finish with a four-year degree or higher.
“That’s definitely one of the main goals,” said Reyka Jayasinghe, director of the Summer Focus Program, which oversees the internships.
Nationwide, the lack of diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — has been a concern. Many employers are looking for a more diverse group of problem-solvers to help design products and technology.
But women and minorities are underrepresented in degree programs leading to employment. According to Change the Equation, a nonpartisan, CEO-led initiative based in Washington, blacks and Hispanics made up 8 percent and 9 percent of those who earned STEM degrees in 2011-12. Women made up 34 percent.
Those who complete the Young Scientists Program are eight times more likely to graduate with a degree from a four-year college than their peers in St. Louis Public Schools, one of a number of districts from which the program attracts students. One-third of them go on to earn graduate degrees, of which 61 percent are science related, according to program organizers.
The program is selective. Of the 80 students who applied last year, 35 were interviewed. About half were accepted.
On the other side of the medical campus, Lewam Gebremedhn, 17, stood in front of about 20 Washington University psychiatry staff and interns to present her analysis of how the social media site Reddit is helping pot smokers kick the habit.
It was research that the psychiatry department wanted to get done.
Lewam is a rising senior at Soldan International Studies High School in St. Louis. She has been leaning toward becoming a nephrologist, a kidney doctor, because her father is on dialysis.
“I’m not really sure I want to do that,” she said after her presentation. “This is a gateway to find out what I want to be, really. This could be an option,” she said of psychiatry.