T

he litany of problems that beset the very poor is daunting: high unemployment and underemployment, lack of educational opportunities, addiction, crime, homelessness, abuse. It can be hard to rise out of these circumstances and pursue a career as a scientist, doctor, or any profession for that matter. Yet I’ve seen for myself that there’s a proven way to equip talented and determined students with the tools they need to do just that. It’s called the Health Careers Opportunity Program.

Administered through the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, the program provides grants to universities to help them recruit qualified individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds into health-related fields, meet their academic and social needs, and ensure that future health care providers are familiar with the needs of underserved communities. Despite the program’s success for thousands of students and their communities, its modest funding is in danger of being cut from the fiscal year 2017 budget.

At Johns Hopkins, the program funds the Initiative for Careers in Science and Medicine, which my lab founded in 2009. With the grant, we’ve been able to expand from hosting just two high school students during that first summer to supporting about 60 high school, college, and recently graduated postbaccalaureate students each year. During the summer, each student works in a research laboratory and hones his or her academic and professional skills.

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To be admitted, students must have a strong interest in a career in biomedicine, and be both economically disadvantaged (household income less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level) and educationally disadvantaged (such as a first-generation college student).

Many of these students’ circumstances are stark. As I get to know them, I often learn that their parents struggle with addiction or incarceration. Some have been abused. Others have families scraping by on less than $8,000 a year, or have been homeless at some point. But they are ambitious and hungry to learn, and they want something different for their lives.

Over the course of a summer, they pick up research skills, receive invaluable mentorship, and learn about the expectations of a professional workplace. Our high school students take courses in math, writing, science, and other subjects to bring them up to — or beyond — grade level. So far, all of our students have gone on to four-year college programs after graduating from high school.

It’s not uncommon for a high school student’s grade point average to rise from a C to an A after completing our program. Malik, for example, started last summer with a 2.1 GPA, but is now sporting a 3.7. Many of his colleagues have shown similarly dramatic growth.

We have been searching for the magical elixir that yields such improvements. Two major ingredients have emerged: study skills and a participant’s recognition that education is key to reaching his or her life goals. During the program, our students often realize for the first time that pursuing a professional career is possible for them.

We have been hearing from students who have taken part in the program that its benefits extend to others. “By participating in this program, I am in a unique position to encourage students with a background similar to mine. I can say with confidence, ‘You can do this, and there are people who want to help you. People who have helped me,’” Bola, a postbaccalaureate student, wrote recently in response to a survey.

Michelle, another postbaccalaureate student, told us that, “What we are doing here is so much more than ensuring our own success; we are showing future generations that a career in medicine is within reach for underrepresented minorities. We are paving a path that so few deserving people are afforded the chance to follow.”

No single program, including ours, can solve all of the societal problems that affect our students, but we can and do give them an opportunity to build a better future for themselves. “Pipeline” initiatives like ours are sorely needed to diversify the medical and scientific research fields; a recent report by the Association of American Medical Colleges showed that there are fewer black men entering medical school today than in 1978.

Funding for the Health Careers Opportunity Program, at $14.2 million a year, is less than a drop in the bucket of the federal budget. Yet it fuels programs at 17 institutions and provides support for about 1,200 students per year. But as one congressional staffer explained to me, lawmakers are focused on spending that produces immediate results rather than longer-term benefits. Short-sighted as this attitude is, it also ignores the striking near-term benefits of a program like ours.

I’d like to see programs like our Initiative for Careers in Science and Medicine begin in elementary school and really equip students with the support and tools they need to succeed. But first, Congress needs to continue its support of the Health Careers Opportunity Program — an invaluable investment in our society’s future.

Douglas Robinson, PhD, is a professor of cell biology in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. (The project described is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration, Grant # D18HP29037.  The views expressed in this presentation are solely the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the Health Resources and Services Administration. Mention of the department or agency names does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.)

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