High Schoolers Question Medical Knowledge at Summer Institute

Students from throughout Arizona are working as paid researchers in the Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance, a UA College of Medicine program that runs through this week.
July 22, 2010
Russell Witte, assistant professor of radiology with the UA College of Medicine, left, mentors Roberto Reyes, a student at Nogales High School, during the 2010 SIMI program. (Photo by Peter Crown)
Russell Witte, assistant professor of radiology with the UA College of Medicine, left, mentors Roberto Reyes, a student at Nogales High School, during the 2010 SIMI program. (Photo by Peter Crown)

"The important thing is not to stop questioning," said Albert Einstein, and that is exactly what a group of 24 high school students are doing this summer at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

Students from throughout Arizona and one from Texas are learning to question established medical knowledge while working as paid researchers in the Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance, or SIMI, research program for high school students. The seven-week program runs through July 23.

The SIMI program offers financially, socially or educationally disadvantaged high school students an opportunity to work full-time with pay on biomedical research projects with UA College of Medicine researchers in their laboratories and clinics, and often with medical students, as well. A list of high school student participants and their mentors can be found here.

"Explorations in the SIMI program open a boundless universe for the students," said Dr. Marlys Witte, a professor with the UA College of Medicine department of surgery and director of the program, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award.

"Questions are the starting point and continuation of all learning and discovery, and skilled questioners are needed to expand our horizons. The SIMI program uses the insights and techniques of medical ignorance – unanswered questions and unquestioned answers – to improve science education and health literacy," Witte said.

In addition to research work, SIMI participants attend an innovative seminar series, directed by Witte, that encourages questioning of established medical knowledge.

"They learn that inquiry is what makes research creative and exciting, and that finishing a course of study with more and better unanswered questions is healthy and desirable," she said.

All participants also attend an "Introduction to Molecular Medicine" mini-course that offers hands-on, state-of-the-art laboratory sessions, including DNA isolation and DNA fingerprinting.

Since it first was offered at the UA in 1987, 473 students have participated in the SIMI program, and a significant number have gone on to pursue careers in medical fields.

Thirty-six have graduated from, or are in, medical school, including 12 who have graduated from and six who currently are attending the UA College of Medicine. Two have gone to Stanford University School of Medicine, two to Harvard Medical School, one to Yale University School of Medicine, one to Duke University, one to Cornell University and one to Mayo Medical School.

Four former participants have received dual medical/doctoral degrees, and others have pursued degrees at colleges of nursing, pharmacy and veterinary medicine.

The SIMI program also introduces participants to new technologies under development, including the first-ever broadband Internet-based Virtual Clinical Research Center, or VCRC, and the Medical Ignorance Exploratorium, or MIEx. These centers provide access to specialized medical information, including videos and multimedia applications for student research.

Assisted by the UA's Arizona Telemedicine Program and partnerships with other institutions, VCRC and MIEx create live, Internet-based, age-appropriate and culturally sensitive collaborative experiences that span clinical research topics, from artificial hearts to breast cancer to gene therapy.

Similar to the concept of Second Life, the students become skilled "questionators" who surf the Internet for resources and create, navigate and query expanding "Islands of Medical Ignorance" as members of multidisciplinary clinical and translational research teams.

The MIEx was initiated in the summer of 2005 by the UA College of Medicine's Information Technology Services under the guidance of Peter Crown, a multimedia collaboratory producer with the UA College of Medicine department of surgery. Part of the MIEx, called the Collaboratory Space, enables small groups of students to work together on a project via the Internet at any time and location.

Currently under development and testing is a system with a webcam on each student's computer that allows group members to see and speak with each other while they discuss a project, edit documents together and share Internet resources. It also enables students to present questions to noted researchers around the country.

Translational research – researchers working with each other and with physicians and other health-care professionals and applying the results to patient care as quickly as possible – is key to understanding disease processes and developing new treatments.

"Showcasing clinical research and teams in this collaborative, inquiry-driven, Internet-based environment helps recruit the diverse clinical research teams of the future, who will forge new pathways of discovery, educate the public about clinical research and bring basic science advances from ‘bench to bedside,' from the laboratory to the community," Witte said.

The SIMI program encourages the students to maintain contact with the researchers, professors and practitioners throughout the year.

Said Witte: "Our goal is to give these students a positive research experience that will stimulate inquiry and collaboration and also encourage them to go on to college, where some will continue their research and ultimately enter medical school as well as a wide variety of graduate programs and other health fields."