By Nadia Johnson, Co-Director of the Oncofertility Saturday Academy
On Saturday, February 18th, 31 high school girls hailing from six different local Chicago high schools celebrated the culmination of the sixth annual Oncofertility Saturday Academy (OSA) with a family day and graduation event. OSA is the flagship academy of the Women’s Health Science Program, the award-winning science education program that aims to inspire high school girls from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in science and medicine. OSA consists of a junior academy (JOSA) geared toward laboratory sciences, and a senior academy (SOSA) geared toward clinical sciences. Each academy includes weekly homework assignments, and three on-campus days filled with hands-on laboratory or clinical activities, workshops on such topics as sexual health and applying to medical school, and panel discussions with students or professionals in the field.
During family day, students demonstrate how much they have learned during the five-week program by presenting a capstone project, and rotating through stations that cover some of the academy topics with their families. For example, the SOSA students take their parents’ blood pressure (a skill they learned during the “Doctor for a Day” session) and the JOSA students show their parents how female fertility can be preserved through the use of follicle isolation and preservation in alginate beads (a technique pioneered by the Woodruff and Shea labs, that they learn about during the “Regulation of Ovarian Function” session).
Graduation follows family day, and is a chance for everyone – parents, siblings, and friends of the OSA students, and the over 100 OSA volunteers – to celebrate the accomplishments of the girls who were motivated and dedicated enough to complete homework assignments every week, and get up extra early on Saturdays to attend the on-campus all-day sessions. Each student gives a short speech before accepting her certificate and OSA patch. One student, a senior at Roberto Clemente High School, started her speech with: “I am very honored to be part of this program, this is the first year that it was opened to Chicago Public Schools [so] I am fortunate to be here.” Up until this year, the OSA program was only available to students from the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School. With the help of many teachers and advisors throughout the Chicago Public School system, the program leaders were able to offer the program to other qualified students this year; in addition to Clemente and Young Women’s, OSA student hailed from four other schools: Kenwood Academy, King College Prep, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, and Instituto Health and Science Career Academy.
Many other students commented on their favorite experiences during the academy in their graduation speeches. Several SOSA students remarked that using the da Vinci surgical robot, a $1.5 million system used for minimally invasive gynecologic procedures, during the “Oncofertility & Surgery” session, was their favorite part of OSA. Most of the students thanked their mentors – JOSA girls were partnered with scientist mentors and SOSA girls we paired with first year medical students. The girls were proud of what they had accomplished, and recounted their experiences during the program with a mixture of gratitude and amazement. One student, a senior at Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, concluded her graduation speech with a quote from author Sarah Caldwell: “Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can – There will always come a time in your life, when you will be grateful that you did.”
It may appear that the OSA program is designed to teach high school girls about cancer, reproductive biology, and oncofertility, but the program strives to teach so much more than that. It is a program designed to empower young women with knowledge about their own bodies; a program with over 100 university staff, student, and faculty volunteers, who serve as role models and mentors during the program; a program looking to change the face of science and medicine. OSA is a program that takes young women who are willing to learn, and hopes to turn them into the scientists, physicians and leaders of tomorrow.