By Julie Wood
Adiba Bhuiyan and Liana Panik, rising sophomores at Temple University, quickly became close friends as freshmen, bonding over their shared interest in science. Bhuiyan, a double major in chemistry and finance, and Panik, a biology major, share a love of science; however, they just recently discovered another similarity—they both attended the Penn Academy for Reproductive Sciences (PARS) during their time in high school.
“Liana lived two doors down the hall from me at Temple and neither of us mentioned our time with PARS when we first met,” Bhuiyan said. “Now we have another amazing thing to bond over!”
Though they attended PARS in different years, the workshop influenced both of their decisions to pursue career paths in medicine.
PARS is an all-female workshop led by clinicians, scientists, and medical students for high school students interested in exploring the world of health care and medicine, particularly reproductive science. Jamie Shuda, EdD, the program outreach coordinator for PARS, has been organizing the program for nearly a decade, holding the first PARS workshop in 2010. The workshops, held in both spring and summer, give high school students the opportunity to participate in hands-on activities in the lab as well engage in courses revolving around reproductive health. This summer, the program, which is funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, ran its 21st cohort. Over the years, 227 young women have participated.
“Reproductive health is not a topic often spoken about among high school students,” Shuda says. “It helps the girls understand the science and research behind their own bodies.”
Day one of the workshop last month started with a crash course in the female reproductive system, led by Christos Coutifaris, MD, PhD, a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Later, the girls heard from Monica Mainigi, MD, an assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and researcher in the Center for Research on Reproduction and Women’s Health, on in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Mainigi walked students through an IVF clinical scenario and available resources to help prospective parents become pregnant. The girls were quick to join the discussion with questions informed from their own lives and their “IVF 101” earlier in the day. Among the group of high school students was Mainigi’s daughter Naiya and her friend, both juniors in a local high school, who are interested in learning more about the field Naiya’s mother’s clinical specialty.
“It was great having her as part of the course finally,” Mainigi said. “She was so young when we first started PARS.”
After the students completed their IVF lectures, they put on their white lab coats to participate in a hands-on lab activity to view the fertilization of mouse egg and sperm in a dish.
The ethical debates that some of the PARS topics evoke, such as discussions on fertility specialists using new medical technologies for procedures, is one of the program’s highlights for Shuda, who loves listening to how the students absorb various medical dilemmas and work out how to resolve them using their newfound knowledge of bioethics. “The girls are using science to back up their thoughts,” Shuda said. “They’re becoming scientifically literate right before my eyes, and it’s amazing!”
PARS also provides guidance for the girls who are exploring educational and career options in STEM. To assist with their transition from high school to college, the workshop also has sessions dedicated to applying to colleges, writing resumes, and networking. “We want to give them the confidence to pursue higher education and careers,” Shuda said. “It opens their eyes to career paths they never knew existed or perhaps felt were out of their scope.”
Shuda also emphasizes that many of the girls attending the program are seeing successful women in this field for the first time, which has inspired some PARS alumni, including Bhuiyan and Panik, to choose similar career paths.
Attending PARS in 2016, Bhuiyan found the labs run by female experts in the field the most impactful part of the session. “As a high school sophomore at the time, I did not have much exposure to working in a lab, so when I held a syringe, I felt so powerful. I felt like I was actually doing something,” Bhuiyan said.
Beginning the program with only a slight curiosity in science, Bhuiyan was enlightened by the program’s subject matter, ultimately wanting to work towards a career in reproductive health by the end of the workshop. “I always thought computer science was where my interests were; however, PARS not only encouraged my interest in medicine, it exposed me to reproductive science.”
In addition to her work with PARS, Shuda is also actively involved in coordinating the Penn Academy for Skin Health (PASH), a co-ed dermatology-based program, offered to high school students in Philadelphia public schools. PASH engages students in a 4-week course in the spring to learn about the science behind their skin. The program encourages students to participate in lab activities focused on the field of dermatology, experiencing a new area of science they may not have been exposed to in their classrooms. Some of the students in each cohort have even been selected to do internships where they conduct research with Penn Dermatology.
Panik attended PARS in 2017, attributing her choice in studying biology to the impact PARS had on fostering her love of science. She found the discussions of reproductive health to be especially useful. “It gives a set of knowledge to high school girls that they’re not getting in school,” Panik said. “And it’s helpful to learn that as a woman.” She has decided to primarily focus on veterinary science, but explained how the PARS program opened her eyes to the vast professions available in the world of medicine.
Shuda says she hears often from past participants and, much like Bhuiyan and Panik, the majority have gone on to pursue careers in the field of medicine. “I’m blown away by the feedback from alumni, and am honored to know that PARS influenced them and gave them the confidence to pursue careers and colleges in this field.”