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Focused ultrasound summer program provides high school students with unique hospital-based research experience

August 26, 2022

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This summer 25 high school students got hands-on research experience as part of Sunnybrook's Focused Ultrasound High School Summer Research Program.

The annual program, running since 2006, gives high-school students that are passionate about math and sciences the opportunity to gain knowledge and experience in the fields of physics, engineering and biology throughout their 8-week internship. Students work alongside supervisors in Sunnybrook’s cutting-edge Focused Ultrasound Lab, which is led by scientists Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, Dr. Meaghan O’Reilly and Dr. David Goertz.

“Being exposed to science and having support from mentors at an early age can have a profound impact on a student’s future,” says Dr. Hynynen, who explains his own career would have looked very different, if it wasn’t for the support of a teacher who recognized his talents in math at a young age and encouraged him to further his schooling.

The program is unique in that it exposes students to a hospital-based research experience before entering university, which the students say is critical. “When you’re in high school, you don’t get exposed to that many careers,” says Maya, a student in the program entering grade 12 next year. “It’s cool to see [here] that there are many careers. I like science as a whole but I wasn’t sure if I’d like research or want to try something else. There is so much out there.”

Students work with their supervisors on specific projects in one of four streams: biology, programming, experimental, or engineering and technology development. Regular seminars — about the peer review process, clinical trials, or how scientists run a lab — teach students important skills for a career in research. In addition to honing their research and technical expertise, students also learn valuable life skills through regular workshops focused on topics such as healthy work-life balance, exploring career paths in research, and practices for ensuring equity in the workplace.

Lab Manager Kristina Mikloska, who oversees the program, says she also ensures the students participate in mentor sessions and social activities so they can build relationships with a community of people who share common interests. “We want to create a safe space for all to explore their academic interests and grow as young adults.”

This year the program received over 250 applications, thanks in part to targeted recruitment and partnerships across the city, including working with the TDSB’s Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement and the TOPS program at Marc Garneau C.I. “Equitable outreach and hiring has always been an important focus for the program to ensure the next generation of scientists is diverse and ultimately that health care research is more representative of the people it serves,” says Kristina.

Although the program is competitive, the students say that once arriving, any concerns they had about competing with one another went away. “The lab is extremely supportive. They recognize our potential and they want us all to do well so they provide us with tips and say go be successful,” says Aisha, a student in the program who is starting University in the fall. “It changed my perspective on how you should be. I was more competitive before and now I see the value in helping others and that’s how everyone should be.”

The students say their summer job in the lab has also left them with more confidence and independence.

“After my research presentation last week, I was more confident than I thought I would be,” says Saheed who is entering grade 12 in the fall. “My robotics teacher will notice a big change. This program has increased my confidence for sure.”

For Yue Qian, who traveled from Montreal to be part of the program, she says she’s proud of the independence she’s developed. “I’ve learned to be more open and make friends. Knowing there were other interns like me who share similar passions, it allowed me to be myself.”

The skills, mentorship and experience gained in the high school program have enabled many alumni to have successful careers in science. Past graduates of the high school program have gone on to careers in medicine, engineering, and software development — working for companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple. Many have also continued on with careers in research and are currently completing PhDs or postdoctoral fellowships at leading universities around the world.

As this year’s students wrap up their time at Sunnybrook, they reflect on their experience as inspiring, motivating and impactful — whether they were helping with an experiment, coding, soldering, working under the microscope or brainstorming with their supervisor. Aisha says, “The skills we learned here will take us above and beyond.”

Learn more about the program »