Howard to Harvard: An Inside Look at Mentoring in STEM Education

In the ongoing effort to boost diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers, many of the vanguard programs and key advocates we rely upon go unrecognized. One of the challenges in this area involves finding mentors who understand the complex issues surrounding urban youth. In order to prepare the future generation of STEM leaders, we must also increase the access to research labs and hands-on experiences in the biomedical sciences.

Joan Y. Reede, MD, MS, MPH, MBA, the first Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership at Harvard Medical School (HMS) launched the Minority Faculty Development Program (MFDP) to increase diversity among the HMS faculty. An initial strategy of MFDP was to create a K-12 pipeline of Educational Outreach Programs allowing students multiple points of entry and exit. One such program is Project Success, celebrating its 21st year this summer. The main goal of Project Success is to increase awareness about and exposure to careers in the biomedical sciences for students from under-represented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds who reside in Boston and Cambridge. Project Success accepts high school juniors and seniors who are eligible to reapply during college as long as they maintain a 2.75 GPA in a STEM major.

The students spend between eight to ten weeks during the summer in a paid internship at a Harvard affiliated research lab where they are mentored by faculty and post docs. At the end of the program each student gives a PowerPoint presentation describing the research they conducted. Project Success has a proven track record -- 99 percent of participants have matriculated into four year colleges throughout the United States with many assuming leadership roles in STEM careers nationwide.

The key contributors to the impact of our programs are the Harvard research faculty and mentors such as Edward K. Brown Jr., DDS, DMSc who at 33 years old brings a nuanced approach to mentoring. "I didn't think about dental school when I was a teenager," he reassures our students. His message is clear, a biomedical science profession is still within reach if you are willing to consider new ideas and commit to the pursuit of excellence. His journey from student athlete with aspirations of becoming a professional baseball player, to graduating from Howard University College of Dentistry and completing an additional degree at Harvard School of Dental Medicine this past May, dispels the myth that athletic men of color lack intellectual depth and acumen.

"I was told by my college guidance counselor that I would not get into medical school or dental school with my grades. I persevered and applied to twenty one dental schools, not getting into one of them, but I was accepted into the Preliminary Academic Reinforcement Program (PARP), a joint program between Howard University Medical School and the College of Dentistry." PARP is a Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP) sponsored by the U.S Health Resources and Services Administration to provide formal academic training for under-represented students in STEM subjects. Dr. Brown was one of twenty-five students selected for his potential to excel in medical studies. The results of the summer program determined if he would matriculate that fall into the freshman class. In PARP he was forced to refine his study skills. "I spent six weeks in a basement studying the first semester of medical school -- anatomy, physiology, histology. All I wanted was for someone to give me a chance to prove that I could do the work. This was my chance."

Dr. Brown's achievement and honesty about his academic beginnings in STEM illustrates what it takes to master the craft of prosthodontics and confirms that not every medical professional starts out a science aficionado. His lectures are accessible to the students he coaches at Project Success. "Every year add an experience to your resume," he advises.

It is to our advantage as a society to help young people understand that they are the future. When we increase and nurture their interests in STEM careers and public health policy we can foster an awareness of opportunities they never envisioned. "I want students to know that they are not too young, or too small or insignificant to make meaningful changes in their communities," says Dr. Brown. If we find mentors with whom students can develop authentic relationships, our success in fostering the next generation of STEM innovators is all the more likely.