Giving Kids a Taste of Medical Careers

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3min 43sec

A high school student takes part in a recent tour of the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Photo credit: Lynn Clark, University of Colorado Cancer Center.

More than a million Coloradans live in places where it's hard to find a doctor. There are physician shortages in poor, urban neighborhoods, and many rural parts of the state, too.There are a lot of efforts underway to help Colorado grow more of its own doctors.
Colorado Public Radio Health Reporter Eric Whitney checked in with one in Aurora.

WHITNEY: Colorado needs doctors? The Landa sisters in Aurora are ready to help. Seventeen-year-old Magnolia Landa wants to turn her passion for science into a career.

MAGNOLIA: since I've been small I've always had this interest toward science, more than any other subject in school. And I decided the best route is helping out, while you're doing science at the same time. So I thought that doing health care would allow me to provide that.

WHITNEY: Magnolia is looking at undergraduate programs that will prepare her for medical school. Her sister Giselda, who's 16, is too.

GISELDA: I wanna double major, like in biochemistry and mathematics.

WHITNEY: A big reason Magnolia and Giselda are so confident that they’re going to be doctors is because they’re part of the Aurora Lights program in Aurora Public Schools. Aurora Lights gives kids interested in science exposure to real-life working doctors, researchers and other health professionals. Like today, at the University of Colorado Cancer Center.

SOUND: Kids getting tour in radiation treatment lab.

WHITNEY: Students in this tour group are learning how doctors use radiation to kill cancer, why radiation works, and its limitations.

Giselda is on the tour, and is impressed by the nuclear scientists' precision.

GISELDA: they know how to like make it shaped, the radiation, so it's just on the shape of the tumor.

WHITNEY: Giselda and her sister Magnolia both have the brains and the desire to throw themselves into college and medical school. Now both are hoping there's enough financial help out there for them to achieve their dreams.

GISELDA: Like we're kinda like a low income family, we're six kids....
MAGNOLIA: My mom is just a housewife, and my dad is a sheetrock rocker, so he's really not a professional worker at all. And I think that's part of why we really wanna go up there and prove we can really do something with our lives.

WHITNEY: The federal Affordable Care Act is boosting financial aid for medical students in a big way. After years of cuts, it pours $1.5 billion dollars into the National Health Service Corps. That program repays the student loans of doctors who agree to work in rural or urban areas where there's a doctor shortage. The Act also gives money to clinics and hospitals that help train medical school students.

But for high school kids thinking about medical school, Dr. Steven Leong says cost isn't necessarily the biggest challenge.

LEONG: the hardest bit for any person at a high school is actually getting the experience to see whether you like it or not.

WHITNEY: Leong is a physician and researcher at the Cancer Center.

LEONG: Because everybody has a lot of misconceptions about what a doctor is like, what kind of hours we do, and for people to have a very good exposure, whether it's good or bad, could actually help form their decision, this is what I love, I want to do this for the rest of my life. Or, I don't like this at all, I need to do something else.

WHITNEY: Leong gave students a taste of what his job is like running clinical trials on new cancer drugs. He offered a couple of students the chance to shadow him for a day, and encouraged them to apply for the Cancer Center's summer research program for high school kids.

Magnolia Landa did the research program last summer, and says learning about health sciences first hand has cemented her commitment to going to medical school. She says she's willing to put in the long hours of study, to say no to partying, and to beat the bushes for money to pay for school.

MAGNOLIA: I'm a very determined person, I'd say. So once I have planned what I want to do, I'll work for it, hard.
WHITNEY: And you'll get it?
MAGNOLIA: I'll get it.