What does a researcher do? When asked, teens across Chicago imagined weary workers overwhelmed by mountains of paper in a lonely, windowless office. With such a bleak image in mind, it’s no wonder that teens opt to pursue more familiar and stereotypically glamorous careers instead of those in research. In fact, lack of familiarity with the profession poses a significant barrier to teens’ pursuit of research careers, since the majority of students who concentrate on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in college and beyond make the choice during high school.
To learn more about careers in health research this summer, twelve students participated in the TEACH STRIVES (Spreading Teen Research-Inspired Videos to Engage Schoolmates) Program, an NIH-funded grant led by Vineet Arora, MD at the University of Chicago. The students were recruited from the Collegiate Scholars Program (CSP) , a high-achieving high school program at the University of Chicago that draws Chicago Public School students from all over the city.
As part of the TEACH program, these students shadowed prominent clinical researchers and contributed to clinical research projects, including the Hospitalist and Comprehensive Care studies. The students also conducted independent research through focus groups of their peers. The focus groups, centered around teen perceptions about research, revealed that most teens describe research as boring, exhausting, repetitive, and not a particularly lucrative profession. The Chicago-area focus group participants believed research to be vaguely important but not of particular personal interest, despite admitting they are “not sure exactly what a researcher does.”
Inspired by their summer research experience and appalled by their peers’ pessimistic perceptions, the TEACH teens designed, filmed, and launched a video campaign aimed at setting the record straight about research careers. Using the popular “Expectation vs. Reality” format, the teens took common tropes about research careers and turned them on their heads. The students urged teens to #DoYourResearch before making assumptions about research careers. In order to solve the healthcare issues that face their generation, teens need to realize that research is innovative and meaningful.
As the American population becomes increasingly diverse, it’s important for biomedical research to engage teens across a variety of backgrounds and lived experiences. Over two decades have passed since the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act called for the diversification of clinical research, yet research still isn’t representative of the American population. By 2040, underrepresented minorities (URMs) will account for more than 40 percent of the US population, but only 12.5 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees are earned by URMs.
The questions that researchers strive to answer are often derived from their own experiences, meaning that as certain populations are disproportionately underrepresented in the field, their interests and perspectives are overlooked. As a result, healthcare and science policies and practices remain largely informed by research extrapolated from a largely homogenous study population and workforce, making it difficult for our increasingly diverse nation to fully reap the benefits of clinical and biomedical advances.
Interested? #DoYourResearch! Inspire a teen to consider a research career by sharing our video. Interested in learning more or sharing your ideas? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.