Research Apprenticeship Program offers an early taste of the field of medicine

July 14, 2008

by Bobbi Jo Snethen

For 12 years, Gloria Hawkins has been dedicated to enriching the lives of diverse and promising high school students interested in pursuing a career in medicine and the sciences.

Photo of Precious Banks

High school student Precious Banks works in a lab while taking part in the School of Medicine and Public Health’s Research Apprentice Program (RAP) at the UW Hospital on July 1, 2008. RAP is a seven-week summer program for Wisconsin high school students designed to provide scientific research experience with UW-Madison faculty and research scientists.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Hawkins, an assistant dean of multicultural affairs at UW-Madison, is the director of the Research Apprenticeship Program (RAP), primarily funded through the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the Department of Public Instruction.

RAP is a seven-week, precollege summer program designed to provide research experiences for a diverse group of juniors and seniors from the Dane County area. In its 28th year, RAP aims to increase participation and success rates of students traditionally underrepresented in the sciences.

Approximately 20-25 students are selected for RAP each summer, and about one-third are also active participants in UW-Madison's Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE), a campuswide precollege program designed to create academic opportunities among diverse students in Wisconsin.

"We look at which students could best benefit from the program," says Hawkins. "We first look at students who have achieved academically, who've had limited access to precollege program activities and who have good letters of recommendation."

To be accepted into RAP, aspiring participants must submit transcripts, maintain a minimum B average, have two letters of recommendation and complete a personal essay that successfully conveys their goals and interests.

Arthur Polans, a UW-Madison professor of ophthalmology entering his 12th year as an RAP mentor, typically guides one student each summer through what he describes as an "extremely overwhelming experience."

“I have students send me e-mails after they’ve graduated from undergraduate school and have said that ’that summer with the apprenticeship program really made a difference in my life’ and because of that, ’I’m pursuing graduate study or medical school. It’s really a rush for me to hear that.”

Gloria Hawkins, director of the Research Apprenticeship Program

"They're really quite clueless when they arrive. They're overwhelmed. I always tell the students to relax, because they're supposed to feel that way," says Polans.

Polans currently mentors Precious Banks, an upcoming senior at Bay View High School in Milwaukee. Banks, also a member of PEOPLE, is applying to UW-Madison this year and would like to attend the School of Medicine and Public Health in the future. She believes RAP has been a beneficial experience for her academic career.

"It's really nice to know that something I'm studying now might help someone down the road, or it might even help me as a college student when I'm working with something I've seen before," says Banks.

RAP students work alongside current UW-Madison undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and research scientists during their stay. They are exposed to the multiple outcomes of researching their own hypothesis.

"I get to do experiments every day, and I really enjoy being in the lab," says Banks, who is currently studying sirtuins, enzymes that help prevent cell oxidization, which can help fight aging, obesity, type II diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

"What they get to experience here is real research, which is real experiments being done for the first time," says Polans. "It's often unsuccessful — unlike the planned experiments in a classroom — but that is a key component to learning."

Despite a regimented scholarly agenda, RAP offers leisure activities as part of the academic enrichment component. Almost every week, students go on field trips to places such as the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and Devil's Lake. Participants can also attend scheduled picnics, movie nights and lectures held by UW-Madison faculty and staff members.

"We strive to have a social and cultural element in the program because we want these students to be well-balanced scholars," says Hawkins.

Adds Polans, "They really enjoy those weekends and fun activities. They spend not only time in labs, they have class activities afterward, they give presentations, work on computers, and it's pretty intensive. I think they need that time to relax."

During the seven weeks, RAP delivers financial aid and college preparation workshops, and students are asked to develop a portfolio consisting of desired majors, possible scholarship opportunities and potential financial aid possibilities at a number of universities.

"Although we hope that students will come to the University of Wisconsin, we want them to have options and become aware of what they're capable of doing and (are) eligible for," says Hawkins.

Both Hawkins and Polans are constantly reminded of the program's influence on developing scholars.

"I have students send me e-mails after they've graduated from undergraduate school and have said that 'that summer with the apprenticeship program really made a difference in my life' and because of that, 'I'm pursuing graduate study or medical school,'" says Hawkins. "It's really a rush for me to hear that."

Polans continues to keep in contact with most of his former students.

"I stay in touch with the vast majority of students that come through the lab, and they're all extraordinarily successful. I've been doing this long enough that some of them are in medical school or have finished their residency or are practicing," says Polans. "You can see direct improvements along with prospects for these students as they move on through life, and I believe this is quite rewarding to see."