Program Piques Young Women's Interest in Science Careers

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Tandra Giles knows how to take your vitals. She understands how cancer survivors can have children after chemo. She even knows how to preserve sperm.

Is she a doctor? Nope. Try high school senior.

Giles, an 18-year-old South Sider, learned these skills as one of 16 young women chosen to participate in this year’s Senior Oncofertility Saturday Academy, a program led by Northwestern University’s Women’s Health Science Program. The Academy is a partnership between Giles’ school – the South Side’s Young Women’s Leadership Charter School – and Northwestern.

“My favorite part is learning about women’s bodies,” Giles says. “How just because a person has cancer and it threatens their fertility, how we can preserve it. How to overcome challenges like cancer. How to solve problems through challenges.”

Students gain valuable experience at the Oncofertility Saturday Academy (Photo courtesy of Allison Stevens/MEDILL)Students gain valuable experience at the Oncofertility Saturday Academy (Photo courtesy of Allison Stevens/MEDILL)Since the program’s inception in 2007, 16 juniors and 16 seniors from the Charter School have been selected to participate each year. Students compete for what they see as the privilege of exploring reproductive science, cancer biology and oncofertility, a newly emerging field pioneered by one of the program’s creators, Dr. Teresa Woodruff.

“I think oncofertility’s really a vehicle – what we’re trying to do is provide real-world kinds of experiences for high school girls,” says Woodruff, an OB/GYN professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

The two-month program has two parts, one for juniors and one for seniors. During their junior year, students learn about basic science related to oncofertility. During their senior year, students focus on clinical applications of what they learned the year before.

Giles is going to college and wants to pursue a career in science. For Woodruff and her co-founder Megan Faurot, the director of education programs for the Institute for Women’s Health Research, that’s the goal.

Medill News Service talked to the pair about the program.

What are the goals of the program?
(MF) The main mission of the program is really to prepare and inspire the next generation of women scientists.

(TW) The goals are, first, to give high school girls an experience with clinical science, clinical medicine and bench science, and to expose them to what research is and what opportunities might be down the line. The second goal is to give them a “near peer” relationship, or a mentoring relationship, with someone … who might be an undergraduate or a medical student. The third goal is to make sure they understand what the college setting is like. Finally, we want to engage the parents [and help them] understand the objectives of their daughters as their daughters grow and change and come up with new ideas.

What are the positive outcomes of the program?
(TW) One of the positive outcomes is, of the girls that have gone through our program since 2007 … all of them have gone on to college. And 100 percent convergence from high school to college out of a Chicago public school is just a tremendous statistic. We’re very, very proud of that. And of that group, nearly 90 percent have gone on to study something in the sciences.

(MF) Over the past holiday break we had an alumni reunion. [The girls] were able to share their experiences at college, some of their challenges and some of their successes. What we decided on that day is that we wanted to create an alumni board for the OSA program because they want to stay connected.

(TW) Part of the OSA sisterhood is “Once a sister, always a sister.”

What kind of impact do you see this having on women’s health in the future?
(MF) I think the No. 1 group that will make an impact in women’s health are women themselves. And so if we can inspire more women to go into the field, I feel we’ll make greater strides in the area.

(TW) We hope that these girls are the leaders of the future. We think little things can go a long way … and just a little nudge is all they need sometimes. Or a little confidence. Or just that one little leg up that can be distinguishing. In some cases it’s not that you’ll be president, it’s simply that you’ll graduate from college. I think those are the kinds of things that are really impactful out of this program.

Seniors graduate from the program March 11. The program will commence again next year.

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