A Pipeline to a Medical Career

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Illustration conveying the idea of the pipeline as a tree and growth for the students.

Perelman School and Netter Center give Philly high schoolers exposure to medicine and mentorship.

Karen Xu first learned about the Perelman School of Medicine’s Educational Pipeline Program before she had even committed to the University. “It was during Penn Preview,” the 24-year-old MD/PhD candidate recalls, “and we visited a high school with the program’s director to watch some of the work that the students were doing. I was really excited by what I saw, and one of the first things I did when I actually began med classes was to sign up as a volunteer for the program.” Xu has returned several times during her first four years at Penn, and now serves as a coordinator, where she designs and implements lesson plans for the high schoolers. “I love seeing these kids get excited about topics they haven’t been exposed to before and that might wind up being their career,” Xu says. “To be able to reach them in high school seems like a very pivotal moment.”

The Educational Pipeline Program, which pairs pre-med and pre-vet undergrads and Perelman and Penn Vet students with local Philadelphia high school students to introduce them to career tracks in medicine and healthcare, is a win-win situation for everyone involved, points out Sharon Lewis, the program director and associate professor of neurology. “Our students bring their amazing enthusiasm to the high school students,” she says. “They pour their hearts into it, and they get so much back. Since most of them will eventually end up in academic medical careers, this is a really important way for them to hone their teaching skills and work on communicating complicated concepts to lay populations.” As for the high school students, the goal is to give them a taste of college life and entering a professional field. “It’s to teach them self-efficacy and a sense of belonging to the Penn community,” Lewis says.

The idea is one of “mutual transformation,” adds Cory Bowman, associate director of Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which facilitates the program. All the participants “can expect to be changed by the experience,” he says.

Karen Hamilton Gr’79, a former Perelman assistant dean of student affairs and director of minority affairs, developed the program in 1998 in response to a challenge set forth by the Association of American Medical Colleges to increase the matriculation of underrepresented minorities in medical school. Initially, the program recruited students from schools scattered around the city, but it soon switched to four of Penn’s more immediate neighbors: Sayre, West Philadelphia, Mastery-Shoemaker, and Robeson high schools. With that new focus, the program became less about trying to find minority students who would become doctors and more concerned with getting them to finish high school through exposure to the healthcare industry, one of the area’s top employment sectors. Encouraging students to act as ambassadors who spread the word to their families and neighbors on wellness issues relevant to the Black and brown community emerged as another facet. In the neurological curriculum, for example, students learn about hypertension and diabetes mellitus, which are disproportionately high in their communities, and discuss the steps that can be taken to reduce stroke risk. 

In addition to that 10th-grade neurology course, students explore gastroenterology in 9th grade, cardiology in 11th grade, and veterinary medicine in 12th grade. In the fall, Penn’s undergrad students visit the local high schools; in the spring, the high schoolers come to Penn to tour labs and interact with the medical and vet school students and residents. During the summer, a public health session, covering topics like epidemiology and food insecurity, is also available. Altogether, about 100 high school students participate each year.

That number will likely grow as the program continues to evolve and young alumni build their own medical careers. Take Samuel A. Funt C’05, a physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and his wife Mia Belldegrun Funt C’05, who in 2019 established the Mia and Sam Funt Educational Pipeline Program Fund, the first-ever gift made to the initiative. While studying neuroscience as an undergrad, Sam says he was drawn to participate in Pipeline because he “had already benefited from inspiring mentors during my education and wanted to serve in that role for others. I [also] felt that the exposure to Penn medical students would be invaluable in helping me to navigate that next step in my own career path. Multitiered mentorship is what Pipeline is all about,” he adds. “It’s often those individuals that are just ahead of you in the educational journey that can provide the most relevant and practical advice.”

In fact, Sam started a similar Pipeline effort in 2010 while attending Emory University School of Medicine and, more recently, Mia encouraged her younger brother Ron Belldegrun C’08, who cofounded the infant nutrition start-up ByHeart with her a few years ago, to consider funding Pipeline. Now, thanks to the support of he and his wife, Karrie, a new life sciences and management track for 11th–12th grade students is set to be added this year in collaboration with the Vagelos Program in Life Sciences & Management. As Pipeline matures and its high school, undergraduate, and graduate students find their way in the world, the program plans to start formalizing its self-evaluation and success measures with the aim of national replication and adaptation.

For now, the Penn students who participate in Pipeline can clearly understand the value of their participation on a one-to-one basis.

“Sure, I’ve made contacts and improved my pedagogical skills,” Xu says. “But I’m really doing this for the students. Having the opportunity to help them visualize their future is the best aspect of the program for me.”

JoAnn Greco

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