SMART Program Shows Students Medical Careers

By Michael Hill

Teenagers — in the middle of summer — in hot pursuit of exploring their passion in the New Jersey Medical School’s SMART Program or “Science Medicine And Related Topics.”

“I came in with a rough sense of anatomy and physiology and I was able to expand while I was here, like I learned so much,” said SMART student Shawn Ohazuruike.

Thirteen-year-old Angelica Rivera discovered what she wants to dive in to: “marine biology.”

“I had an idea of marine biology or forensics. Now I want to go in to marine biology,” she said.

This is a five-week program that thrusts these teenagers into real world medical problems so they can come up with real world medical solutions so they can get a real sense of what it is to be doctors and scientists.

“I’m in love with this program. I feel like this program gives you exposure to the medical field and it shows you that you can do whatever you want. It’s very hands on and I’m a hands on learner,” said SMART student Hailey Gonzalez.

The hands-on program sends these teens on field trips and exposes them to biological lab work.

Ninety-plus teens — most of them African-American, Asian and Latino. A large number from Newark and that’s deliberate, says Newark native Mercedes Padilla Register who recruits these seventh through 12th-graders.

“People hear you’re from Newark, especially those from outside of Newark they say, ‘oh you don’t speak like you’re from Newark’ and don’t expect much from you. I like to believe the total opposite,” she said.

Dr. Maria Soto-Greene is the vice dean of the medical school. She says this is about creating more diversity in the medical profession.

“I think that’s why diversity matters because we do know that individuals are more comfortable in terms of caring for communities from which they come and that body of literature is supported,” she said.

Dr. Soto-Greene says it was an assistant dean who influenced her to pursue medicine and she’s doing the same especially now that the Association of American Medical Colleges says the number of black males in the physician pipeline is at 1978 levels.

She says intervention needs to happen as early as third grade.

“And it needs to be with positive role models and it needs to be in an educational environment even if it’s a school that doesn’t have resources where the teachers themselves and the counselors are not in directly, intentionally or unintentionally limiting a child’s ability,” Dr. Soto-Greene said.

Theses students say they welcome the encouragement from here and home.

“You always need that one person to believe in you and my mother has been that one person. She always pushes me, behind me 100 percent,” Gonzalez said.

And so is the SMART Program.