For some high school students, an ideal summer is one spent on the beach with friends. For others, like me, an ideal summer is one spent hunched over a lab bench carrying out experiments. I had two such summers, which amplified my passion for science and profoundly motivated me in my studies. But I worry that this experience is denied to many who could learn and blossom from summer research opportunities.
I first got the chance to do research the summer after my junior year in high school. It was part of a summer fellowship at the University of California, Irvine, Cancer Research Institute. The program was open only to students living in the county where the university is located, and offered no housing, transportation, or stipend. My family’s finances were solid enough that I could participate without having to worry about making money over the summer, and my parents were able to drive me to and from the lab.
Every day that summer, I woke up excited to get to the lab. I studied the pattern of white blood cells in various layers of skin, trying to understand how they differed between day and night due to the body’s circadian rhythm. As I peered down the microscope’s eyepieces, the fluorescent cells fascinated me as they began to reveal the answers I sought. The excitement of discovery and the pride I felt in my results convinced me to seek out more opportunities for research.
My involvement in the UC Irvine program led to my taking part in another program the following summer. The benefits — confidence, skills, mentors, and more — rippled through my college years and will likely continue into the future as I start work next year as a research assistant and aim toward a career as a physician-scientist.
I realize just how fortunate I have been. Many high school students, including those with the same drive for science and research that I have, aren’t able to take advantage of opportunities for summer research because they can’t afford to do it. I am concerned that the valuable impact of summer research — immediate and future, personal and professional — is largely limited to the economically privileged.
It’s more than a worry, actually. During the 2017-2018 academic year, I was editor-in-chief of the Columbia Undergraduate Science Journal, which publishes the results of high school students’ research. To explore the backgrounds of the students who submitted articles for publication, I used as a proxy the average annual income of their neighborhoods. Their median neighborhood income, $111,497, was nearly double the national median.
That makes sense when you consider that few summer research programs for high school students offer stipends, and some even charge for doing research — one costs more than $10,000 (which includes food and housing). A few ideal programs, like the Jackson Laboratory Summer Student Program and the George Washington Carver Internship Program at Iowa State University, provide room and board as well as generous stipends.
If the majority of summer research programs for high school students don’t offer a complete package of support — housing, food, and a stipend — and some even charge tuition, these opportunities and the benefits that accrue from them will continue to be reaped by economically advantaged students who can afford to spend a summer in the lab.
Economic issues aren’t the only barriers. Many summer research programs for high school students reward answers on applications that demonstrate access to and literacy of scientific research. That can deter applicants who have the drive to do research but who have not yet been immersed in science and the scientific literature.
If summer research programs strive to excite and expose students to scientific research, questions that reward prior experience undermine their power to achieve this goal and restrict the pipeline of future scientists. I believe that programs should consider an applicant’s potential as a future scientist by including questions about work ethic, motivation, and curiosity, rather than focusing on questions regarding research interests, which can change over time.
When I was in high school, my research interest focused on the development of calorie-burning brown fat, and how white fat might be manipulated to function like brown fat. Today, five years later, I’m interested in how a neuron establishes and maintains its individual combination of molecular features that distinguishes it from other neurons. While that may represent a large scientific about-face, the skills and confidence I gained during my high school research experiences have been a springboard for me to pursue undergraduate research and other opportunities on and off campus, like working with the Columbia Undergraduate Science Journal and interning at Genentech.
In short, the benefits that can accrue from doing summer research during high school benefit students in their careers in the biosciences, whether that’s in medicine, academia, or industry.
Given the persistent influence of high school summer research programs, I believe it’s high time to implement changes that broaden access to them. The National Institutes of Health continually reissues grant supplements to increase diversity in scientific research “throughout the continuum from high school to the faculty level.” Companies, foundations, and universities should fund programs that recruit high school students in ways that build a more inclusive pipeline of future scientists. That certainly serves the public interest, but it also benefits the organizations themselves by enlarging and diversifying the talent pool from which they will draw.
Ultimately, the directors and administrators of high school summer research programs must create changes that will increase equity. They need to consider how to increase accessibility for more racially and economically diverse groups of students, in part by considering the real costs that participation in these programs entail.
One high school summer research program in chemistry self-diagnosed these issues. Reporting in the Journal of Chemical Education, the program’s administrators concluded that the “fact that each student attending missed the opportunity to earn money from a summer job evidently discouraged students from the lower income class; an informal poll of our students showed them all to be from middle and upper income families.” That program took place in 1960; the report was published the following year.
More than a half-century later, the system of summer research programs for high school students has perpetuated and, in some cases, heightened these inequities by failing to offer programs that recognize and respond to economic disparities and expanding programs that charge tuition.
If we aspire to create a generation of scientists that is diverse in every sense, we must find ways to ensure that all of those high school students who prefer the lab bench to the beach can reap the benefits of summer research opportunities.
Kenneth Pham is a senior biology major at Columbia University. He plans to work as a research assistant at Columbia and apply to a medical science training program that will lead to a combined M.D. and Ph.D.