Changing the face of medicine and research | WYPR

Changing the face of medicine and research

Dec 5, 2016

Kenneth Abrams, a sixth-grader at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School, receives his lab coat from Emily Rencsok, mentoring specialist for the UMB CURE Scholars Program, at a ceremony in October.
Credit Fraser Smith

Now in its second year – and recently awarded five more years of funding from the National Cancer Institute -- the CURE scholars program aims to change the lives of 60 or more Southwest Baltimore kids and to literally change the face of medical service and research in Baltimore.

Barrington Moore, one of the program’s 170 mentors says many of these kids have never met a black physician or scientist and that "does something to you psychologically."

So, Moore, the mentoring supervisor at Franklin Square Elementary school, and other minority doctors and researchers at the University of Maryland Baltimore launched the program in hopes of producing a cadre of young, black medical scientists and caregivers.

"This is something I would have loved growing up in 6th grade," says Moore. "I didn’t find my passion for science ‘til I was in college."

Leadership for the program comes from the top; that’s University President Dr. Jay Perman, who loves to tell the story of Xavier, a young man he met at a nutrition exhibit at Lexington Market.

Both were making model cars from cucumbers and carrots and the like, and Xavier was the instructor. As the lesson went on, Perman asked Xavier what he wanted to be when he grew up and Xavier started talking about professional football and basketball. Perman frowned a bit.

"Or maybe I’ll have your job," countered the ever fast on his feet Xavier.

The oft-told story usually draws laughter, but not from Perman, not so much.

We know, he tells his audiences, how difficult it will be for young men and women – poor and black -- to surmount the many barriers to such a plan. Many kids might not even dream of such a life. But it’s our job to take those barriers down, Perman says. And that’s what CURE hopes to do.

The 10-11 year old grade school students in Southwest Partnership Schools are chosen on the basis of early aptitude for math and science and for the stability of their parents and home life.

"If we have strong families, we’ll have a successful scholar," explains Dr. Greg Carey, a university research scientist and graduate of an earlier CURE program.

The criteria may exclude worthwhile kids with less than stable home lives, but the hope is to make the program successful so it can grow.

Perman and Carey say the retention rate is 93 percent. When they are inducted into the program, the scholars get a white lab coat – an important symbol in the scientific world.

One of the mentors in Moore’s charge, Eryn Trauben, says she wants to be a resource for talented kids who have too few resources.

"Each kid has so much potential," she says.

She’s working with Kenneth Abrams, an 11-year-old scholar who says he wants to be able to pass math and science and figures CURE will help him do that.

Dr. Carey says kids see opportunity quickly. Having been a scholar, he knows what motivates them.

"By working hard I get to do what I love to do," he said. "I get to make my own decision. That is a tremendously empowering thing. You’re not locked in. You’re not on a one-way track."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, in an inspirational talk to the scholars several weeks ago, said the program not only talks a good game but shows kids and their parents how to win it. Many well-meaning people love the idea of dreaming big: this one offers a clear path with help along the way.

Quoting the civil rights icon Jesse Jackson, he urged them to "move out where the big boats are."

"The Inner Harbor is nice," he said. "The little ducky boats are nice, but go to where the big boats are. Don’t stay in the shallows where the haters are."

Some of the haters who tried to stop him years ago, he said, are his law clients now.

"You have a responsibility," he told them. "Because there are people who want to follow you."

Dr. Perman had said something similar earlier in the program.

"This isn’t a pipe dream. This isn’t a feel good program," he said, citing the high retention rate. "This is a program to develop the next generation of scientists and caregivers and change the landscape of health care research and health care delivery."

This special series on the Southwest Baltimore Partnership is made possible with grant support from Patricia and Mark Joseph.