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Probing a sheep's brain, discovering a life's calling

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 24, 2008-  Rikiyah McGee bit her lip as she deftly handled the scalpel. Wearing medical gloves and working with a partner, she navigated the landscape of a sheep's brain. She cut the brain in half and sliced the sheep's cerebellum, identifying the leafy pattern white matter makes on gray matter, now grinning. One might even say that she had a surgeon's touch.

McGee is 11 years old and attends the Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy School. Along with about 30 fellow students, McGee handled a brain for the first time on Tuesday morning in the anatomy lab at St. Louis University's School of Medicine. They worked under the direction of anatomy instructor Raymond Vollmer as part of SLU's Multicultural Initiative for New Doctors.

MIND is a free program that helps educate minority students about health-care professions in hopes of enticing them into these jobs. The program combines medical education with motivational learning to encourage success. According to MIND coordinator Steven Smith, the goal of the program is to get minority students in the medical pipeline and keep them there, since a relatively low percentage of minorities become doctors.

Two children were assigned to "operate" on each sheep's brain. Vollmer calls this approach comparative anatomy, since he supplements hands-on activities by demonstrating on human brains in the front of the lab. "They can relate what they're seeing in the sheep brain to what they see in the human brain," Vollmer said. "They'll remember it more because they cut it."

The 5th and 6th graders who dissected sheep's brains on Tuesday were part of MIND's youngest educational program, BrainLink, a friendly approach to teaching about the nervous system. For example, Vollmer often relates anatomical lessons to clinical reality. MIND has programs for older students and follows participants through medical school.

"MIND is designed to provide career awareness for students interested in health-care professions," said Dr. Frederick Hamilton, associate OMA director. This is MIND's sixth summer, and some of its students have graduated from high school and attend colleges. "The goal is to make sure they can make a few decisions that enable them to become useful productive citizens."

This summer, the 200 MIND students come from 50 schools. "We are interested in increasing the number of people of color who go into medicine. It's part of our diversity aims, and to fix the disparities in healthcare," Hamilton said.

Vollmer, who is program coordinator of a program called Adventures in Medicine and Science, sees a purpose beyond educating minority students about sciences, "Coming from my background in healthcare, I'm just as interested in teaching these kids how their bodies work. Then, they'll take better care of them," Vollmer said.

Hamilton said MIND includes a counseling component. "We push for success. We teach them to make wise decisions. Make good choices and avoid distracting forces," Hamilton said. Hamilton was once a school teacher, and wants to use his experiences to help "make our children get greater recognition for doing positive things. They'll go back to school and have lots to tell."

According to Smith, a typical MINDS student has a pretty full schedule: From 7:45 to 8:30 a.m., the group reads motivational tales in book by neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson. "We read stories of those who have triumphed from poverty to a successful life in a medical career," Smith said. "It gives students the motivation that they can excel beyond their circumstances, beyond their obstacles." At 8:30, students learn about science in the classroom or the lab. At 11 a.m., a speaker from a medical sector will address the children, showing them different facets of healthcare job opportunities. Later, students tour different labs on SLU's medical campus.

MIND helps give students the tools to focus their life plans. While many college students have no clue about their vocational intents, BrainLink's elementary school students seem to haves their lives meticulously planned. Chlotte Crim of St. Roch's School already knows that she wants to be a pediatrician. "I really like kids. I think it's worth it, you know, to go to college and medical school and do a residency program. I want to succeed in life, and I want to make it in this job."

Joy Resmovits is an intern with the Beacon.