Beyond science and math: COPH undergrads attend USF STEM Academy

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November 8 is National STEM/STEAM Day

What can USF College of Public Health (COPH) students get out of the USF STEM Academy, a program that generally attracts biology, chemistry, math and engineering majors?

A lot, it turns out.

STEM Academy students visit a lab in the integrative biology department. (Photo courtesy of USF Health)

STEM Academy, which gets its primary funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), is a week-long intensive academic experience held in August for first-year students. During the program, students take part in things like hands-on lab work, math challenges, exercises in writing a research plan and team building.

“I actually came into USF with an undeclared major,” said Vanessa Nguyen, a second-year public health student who attended the academy in 2017 as a STEM scholar and worked it in 2018 as a STEM peer mentor. “STEM Academy helped me realize that I don’t have to pursue a biomedical major to get to medical school. Through the process, I realized that public health is something I’m passionate about.”

The COPH has been a strong supporter of STEM Academy says Dr. Richard Pollenz, a USF professor of science education and director of the program. “The college has given us access to research labs where students can meet and engage with grad students, faculty and post docs. It helps students understand the diversity of research at USF and the impact of the COPH in this area.”

It’s this kind of exposure, says Pollenz, that can spark a student’s interest in a nontraditional route to medical school or even ignite a passion for a health-related career that doesn’t involve getting a medical degree.

“One big message of STEM Academy is that students can get to a health profession through ANY major, as long as they take the STEM core curriculum,” Pollenz said. “We often have students switch out of biology or biomedical sciences to disciplines that inspire them more, all while still taking the basic STEM core.”

Another benefit of STEM Academy, according to Pollenz, is the sense of community it fosters.

“We take 240 students, break them into 10 groups of 24 and provide affirmative mentorship and strategic programming from faculty, graduate students and peer mentors. The students become a close community of partners in only a few days,” he noted.

Students in the 2018 STEM Academy. (Photo courtesy of Marie Bourgeois)

And that sense of camaraderie seems to last long after the program is finished, said Pollenz, who reports that the university’s retention of students who have been through the academy is 20 percent higher than a control group who didn’t go through the program.

STEM Academy students at work on a Lego challenge. (Photo courtesy of USF Health)

“I saw STEM Academy as a great opportunity to meet people who share similar passions with me and to further my interest in research,” said Delaenam Akahoho, a freshman biomedical sciences student who is minoring in public health. “I got to meet people from all walks of life and made some amazing friends.”

One of the highlights of the program is a “career speed-dating” event.

Students rotate through nine stations every 12 minutes talking to faculty and professionals in disciplines such as cell biology, chemistry, engineering, emergency medicine, psychology and, yes, public health.

“Students learn the power of networking and see the diversity of careers beyond simply medicine,” Pollenz said. “We have people working in industry [PhD brewers from local microbreweries have participated], government and the private sector. Many students follow up with the professionals for internships, shadowing or research positions. Many have also changed their intended fields based on this event.”

Dr. Marie Bourgeois, a COPH alumna and assistant professor of environmental and occupational health, sees it as prime opportunity to garner interest in the field of public health.

“One of my favorite things to do during the speed-dating event is to ask the students, ‘How many of you want to be doctors?’ Almost all the hands go up,” Bourgeois said. “Then we talk about the current state of medicine. I tell them that unless they are in trauma surgery or neonatology, they are basically just going to manage the steady decline of human health. I tell them that the way to make a difference is to think wider. I tell them to consider getting a public health undergraduate degree or even an MPH as a way to enhance their shot at medical school. I tell them to think about an MD/PhD and become a medical scientist, a degree that can take them from bench to bedside.”

STEM Academy began in 2015 with 118 STEM scholars. The 2018 academy hosted 238. Overall, says Pollenz, more than 700 students have participated in the program, including six from the 2015 program who have already graduated and are now in medical, graduate or pharmacy school.

Richard Pollenz, PhD, takes a selfie with students during the STEM Academy closing program. (Photo by Pollenz)

“I am 100 percent positive this program benefited me,” said Nguyen. “It was just a week long, but it really opened my eyes to the fact that life is not a linear path and there are many different ways to shape your future. I also made lifelong friends from the program, which is made up of the brightest minds. Even if you are not a STEM major, there is so much useful information students can take away from being in this program.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health