MUSC internships show teenagers possibilities in STEM fields

October 18, 2022
Four girls in a classroom. Two in back are talking as one gestures. Two in front talk as one laughs.
From left: Teen science ambassadors Alayna Ancrum, Briana Lawton, senior mentor Shekinah Phillips and near-peer mentor Anna Sofia Crews at a recent meeting at MUSC. Photos by Sarah Pack

Asante Lee, a junior at R.B. Stall High School in North Charleston, has her eye on the future. So when she heard about the Medical University of South Carolina’s Teen Science Ambassador Program, she signed up.

“I was like, ‘Oh, hey, I like STEM. This might be a good opportunity to get in a field with research and stuff. It might help boost my college applications,’” Asante said.

The paid internship might also help her decide which career she’s leaning toward. “Right now, in this moment, I want to be an anesthesiologist more than an artist. So that's kind of the path I was going. I was like, ‘Oh, hey, maybe this is like a step in the right direction. Like, this is where I can get a head start before anyone else.’”

Dr. Kathryn Gex (back to camera), mentor ReJoynce Green, James Moss, Peyton Poling and Asante Lee.  Two adults and three students are seated at a classroom table talking. 
From left: Senior mentor Dr. ReJoyce Green talks with senior mentor Dr. Kathryn Gex, who has her back to the camera, near-peer mentor James Moss, and ambassadors Peyton Poling and Asante Lee.

Program coordinator Ren Rountree said getting a head start is what it’s all about as she and her team work to increase diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. “I think, not just in science but in every facet of life, it's important to have diversity. We need to have different voices featured and give them a voice at the table, and it starts early.”

In this case, it starts in the tenth or eleventh grade. Participants in the Teen Science Ambassador Program have to be at least 16 and a sophomore or junior in Charleston County. They also need to come from a group underrepresented in STEM, whether through race or ethnicity, disability, socio-economic issues and/or gender disparities. “We want make sure that they know that we need them in STEM and cultivate a sense of belonging in STEM,” Rountree said.

The need is clear, she said. There’s plenty of evidence to back up that assertion.

  • The Pew Research Center reported that Black and Hispanic workers are underrepresented in STEM fields.
  • A report in the publication Education Week asked, “Why are students with disabilities so invisible in STEM education?”
  • An article in Science Advances pointed out, “Systemic inequalities for LGBTQ professionals in STEM.”
  • The website STEM Women noted a big imbalance between women and men in the STEM workforce, with women holding fewer than 25% of STEM jobs.

Rountree said she doesn’t expect every teen ambassador to work in STEM, although she hopes many will. “The skills that our students are learning in this program are transferable. Knowing how to develop a resume, present, think critically, these are all skills that will serve the students well in whatever their desired profession is.”

The program also exposes students to clinical research, developmental neuroscience, addiction science and professional development during weekly meetings. “This semester, we have 12 ambassadors in the program. We'll have five near-peer mentors. Over the course of the next five years, we'll have 54 students that will matriculate through the program,” Rountree said.

It's funded through a Science Education Partnership Award, supported by the National Institutes of Health.

High school student, a girl with long braids, sits in a desk looking forward. 
Teen science ambassador Aniya Akinjobi listens during a discussion.

Teen science ambassador Alayna Ancrum, a junior at James Island Charter High School, is interested in working in health care – maybe as a sports medicine doctor. She loves the fact that the program is exposing her to what goes on behind the scenes in science.

“Right now, we're doing research where we all came up with a question on a specific topic about mental health and substances. So we find out information, and we're going to make a big poster about it,” Alayna said.

Renee Rountree, Community Outreach Coordinator 
Ren Rountree

She chose a subject fitting for the ambassadors’ age group. “My question is why do teens use substances as a form of disguise for mental health issues?”

Asante, the junior at Stall High School, went in a different direction. “The project I'm doing is going to be about schizophrenia. Like, what are its causes and such.”

While she looks for the answers, she’s encouraging other students with an interest in STEM to consider applying to the Teen Science Ambassador Program. “This is a really good learning experience, so if they do give you an opportunity at your school, definitely take it up because, like, this field is really interesting: interesting people, interesting researchers and, you know, if you're ever unsure about what you should do, always, you know, try for the unknown,” Asante said.

Alayna agreed. “It's a great opportunity. You would learn a lot of things about research that you didn't know. You would get to learn about a lot of things in the medical field. Also, it's a kind of like a big family. Your mentor is a person you can go to anytime. Well, actually, any of the mentors, because you can have a conversation with them and laugh, and you'll be able to have fun.”

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