Kansas City middle school girls learn about health care careers at KU

July 03, 2017

By Kristi Birch, Senior Communications Coordinator

Learning how to apply casts, students practice using carrots, which break in the same patterns as bones.

Next to an operating table in the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kayla Navarro stands ready in a surgical gown and mask, her forearms outstretched. The scrub technician holds out a pair of open purple gloves, and Kayla steps forward and slides her hands into them. She is now prepped for surgery.

But first, she'll need to finish medical school. And college. And high school and middle school. A sixth-grader, Kayla is one of nearly 60 girls from Rosedale and Argentine middle schools in Kansas City, Kan., who participated in the Resident/Fellow Women in Medicine and Science (RF-WIMS) Promote, Identify, Network (PIN) day at KU Medical Center last month. The event, in its second year, gives girls an inside look at careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by letting them spend the day learning from women working in those professions at KU Medical Center.

Laura Blasi, M.D., chief resident in pediatrics at KU Medical Center, was the leader of the "OR Tour," where Kayla and her classmates scrubbed and donned surgical attire in the Zamierowski Institute for Experiential Learning (ZIEL) simulation lab. "They could see what a real operating room looked like and also experience what it would look and feel like to be a surgeon-in surgical attire, under the surgical lights in the OR," said Blasi.

The students also were able to talk directly with the women in the various STEM careers at KU Medical Center: resident and nonresident physicians, scientists, nurses, physical therapists, pharmacists, medical assistants, and other health care professionals who volunteered to participate.

An interactive experience

In addition to the OR tour in ZIEL, the students rotated in small groups through five other "stations" throughout the morning, including a casting station, where Jessica Brozec, M.D., an orthopedic surgery resident, showed them how casts are applied to broken bones; a women's health station, where physician's assistant Stephanie Volker and resident Hana Reissner, M.D., talked to them about their bodies and about careers in the field of obstetrics and gynecology; an ear, nose and throat (ENT) station, where fellow Jennifer Villwock, M.D., and residents Sreeya Yalamanchali, M.D., and Sinehan Bayrakas, M.D., scoped each other's noses so that the students could observe the inside of the ear and the voice box; a nursing station, where registered nurses and medical assistants taught the girls to measure vital signs, such as temperature, blood pressure, and pulse; and a pharmacy station, where the girls practiced writing prescriptions and filling prescription bottles with Skittles, M&Ms, and jelly beans.

The students also toured basic science labs. They saw microscopic brain specimens in the lab of Dianne Durham, Ph.D., who researches hearing and the central nervous system, and they also got to visit the lab of Asona Lui, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate, who is working to decode how some breast cancers become resistant to frontline drug treatments.

The volunteers believe the interactive experience at PIN day makes a big difference. Brozec, who ran the casting station last year as well, had the girls put casts on broken carrots, which break in the same four kinds of patterns as do human bones. "The hands-on experience is a little more fun for everyone, and it's just really good exposure," said Brozec. Cittali Graves, a seventh grader, said her favorite part of the day was touring Lui's lab. Aniya Westmoreland picked the pharmacy station as her favorite. Seventh grade student Valeria Ramoz said she liked learning about the human brain.  

Stemming STEM interest

Women make up just 29 percent of the workforce in STEM fields, according to the National Science Foundation. Two-thirds of fourth grade girls say they like science and math, but by college, only 18 percent of engineering majors are female. Research has shown that girls' interest in STEM subjects plummets in middle school-largely because of socialization, gender stereotypes and lack of female role models-which is why the RF-WIMS event targets this age group. "This is the perfect time to show them that careers in science and medicine are not only possible for women in general, but for them in particular," said Blasi.

Blasi founded the event two years ago, partly on the basis of her own experience when she was a kid and participated in a similar program through Washburn University in Topeka. "It made me realize that a career in science or medicine was a possibility for me," she said.

This kind of outreach is also one of the goals of the RF-WIMS organization, which aims to advance the careers of women in medicine and science. The event was also sponsored by the Office of Cultural Enhancement and Diversity, the Office of Graduate Medical Education, which bought t-shirts for the students and volunteers, and the Department of Anesthesiology.

The program solicits participation from the Argentine and Rosedale schools because of their proximity to the KU Medical Center. "These girls walk or drive by the campus almost every day. For them to get to come inside and see our educational and clinical facilities is very exciting for them," said Blasi, who said she would like to include more schools in the future.

The schools chose the students to participate on the basis of their interest in science and medicine. There were many self-declared future health care professionals in attendance. Jessica Hawj wants to be a nurse. Gabriela Urrea Alfaro has known since her baby cousin was born that she wants to be an ob-gyn doctor. Vanessa Ramoz and Carmen Arciniega Maria want to be pediatricians. Mia Espinoza, who moved to Kansas City with her mother and three siblings last year, said she is thinking about becoming a doctor.

But even with their ambitions, some of the girls are still aware of traditional gender roles. "Like in the movies, it would be stereotypical for the boy to the doctor, with blond hair and blue eyes, and all the nurses fall for him," said seventh-grader Nayla Lopez. "And all the nurses would be girls."

But in real life, 10 percent of nurses were male in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the proportion is growing. Moreover, the students were able to learn that nursing is a diverse field with many more career options than they might see in the movies, including careers as researchers, health care educators and leaders.

Thinking further

After a pizza lunch held in the KU School of Nursing atrium, the students participated in a panel discussion, in which all the volunteer leaders answered questions from the students. Questions included "When did you know you wanted to be a doctor?" and "How do you handle difficult experiences?" and "What is the hardest part of your job?"

The Brain Discovery Fair, also known as the Brain Bee, an annual event hosted by the Kansas City chapter of the Society for Neuroscience to celebrate Brain Awareness Week, held its event at KU Medical Center the same Saturday and graciously allowed interested students to tour their event as well.

For some students, the event did not create an interest in science and medicine as much as it helped them refine it. "Since I was 10 years old, I have thought of being a doctor," said Aniya Westmoreland. "Now I'm thinking of becoming a surgeon."

Mia Espinoza, who already wanted to be a doctor, now has an idea about where she wants to go to school: "I'm thinking about studying here, at KU."

Last modified: Jun 19, 2018