The road map to the future is clear. In a December report issued by the federal government’s National and Science Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education, experts stressed that the prosperity and security of the United States “depends on an effective and inclusive STEM education ecosystem … and STEM literacy.”
What is less clear are the solutions. How do we engage the next generation of innovators and pioneers? How can the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—expand their career horizons? An innovative new experiential program is taking on those challenges by educating Chicago area high school juniors and seniors about personalized medicine and how genomics is transform- ing health care.
The Genomics and Personalized Medicine STEM Program was launched in 2016 by North- Shore University HealthSystem’s (North Shore) Dr. Janardan D. Khandekar (M.D.) and Dr. Mark Dunnenberger (PharmD), in partnership with the Myra Rubenstein Weis (MRW ) Benefit Committee.
The program is part presentation, part Q&A and part field trip—all designed to introduce to students the visionary career possibilities of these fields.
“When I graduated pharmacy school,” Dr. Dunnenberger said in a phone interview, “no one had the job that I ended up taking two years later.That’s how rapidly the field is changing. I like to remind students graduating high school that it’s okay not to know what you’re going to do, because maybe what you’re going to do doesn’t exist yet.”
This pilot program is funded by the MRW Benefit Committee, which will hold its 23rd annual MRW Health Resource Center Benefit Luncheon on May 1 at the Highland Park Country Club.
Created to honor the memory of former Highland Park resident Myra Rubenstein Weis—who died of breast cancer in 1990 at the age of 49—the committee supports wellness and cancer survivorship programs at NorthShore. In addition to this pilot program, it also funds the Myra Rubenstein Weis Living in the Future (LIFE) Cancer Survivorship Program, free Cancer Survivorship Seminars, the Arts 4 Health series of therapeutic activity courses, and the Myra Rubenstein Weis Health Resource Center.
The featured presenter at this year’s luncheon is Dr. Julian Bailes, whose game-changing research into football-related brain injury with Dr. Bennet Omalu was dramatized in the film Concussion. The Genomics and Personalized Medicine STEM Program was introduced at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) and has since been offered at Chicago Math & Science Academy and Glenbrook South, Highland Park, Niles North, and Niles West high schools.
The genesis of the program, Dr. Khandekar said, was a request from ETHS teachers for him to speak to their students about careers in medicine. These informal presentations suggested an opportunity to further engage the next generation of innovators. So when the MRW Benefit Committee asked him how it could further channel their energies, he suggested a STEM program for students.
Drs. Khandekar and Dunnenberger design the curriculum in tandem with each school’s science department. “Working together, we have a presentation of 15 slides,” Dunnenberger said. “We try as early as possible to open it up for questions.We don’t need to give another lecture; we need to help these students understand what they want to understand. In every presentation, we’ve had the same slide sets, but each has been drastically different. Every single time the students have been uniquely engaged.”
The program culminates with a half-day hospital lab tour during which students learn about basic laboratory skills.
“We are opening up students’ eyes to opportunities for jobs and careers to which they would otherwise not had exposure,” Dr. Dunnenberger said. “I ask them what they think a pharmacist does and every on of them says, ‘Oh, they stand behind a counter and dispense medication.’ And then I tell them what I actually do and they say, ‘You can do that as a pharmacist?’ In my field, there are 22 people trained the way I’m trained. If I can get one student interested (to pursue that), that’s huge.”
Drs. Khandekar and Dunnenberger hope this program inspires students the way their own mentors inspired them to pursue careers in science and medicine. For Dr. Khandekar, who grew up in India, it was his grandfather and father. “My grandfather took me to the library almost every day,” he said. “We did not have a television in our house. I read about everything. My father was a physician who gave me medical books to read when I was 10. That’s the reason why I’m interested in getting young people interested in science from the beginning.”
Dr. Dunnenberger, who also grew up without the resources of the internet, said he was impressed by the way students harness it to pose their “challenging, well-informed” questions. “They ask, ‘I read about genetics and privacy on the internet; how do you deal with that in your day-to-day job?’”
The program is the first step in building a pipeline to engage students in the STEM disciplines, Dr. Khandekar observed, but it will need to be taken one step at a time. Beginning with high school students, he would like to see the program expand next to include middle schools and ultimately elementary students as well as under-privileged households to build a more diverse population.
STEM education is important, he emphasized, “otherwise as a country we will fall behind.”
Has the U.S. already fallen behind? “No,we’re okay” he said with a laugh, “but we need to con- tinue to be vigilant.”
For more information on the MRW Health Resource Center Benefit Luncheon, visit foundation.northshore.org/mrw or call 847-926-5003.