issue Spring 2023

First Steps

By Sara Skoog
Photo by Michael R. Schmidt

Chicago Medical School’s Mini Medical School Program, now in its second year, gives fourth and fifth graders from A.J. Katzenmaier Academy (AJK) in North Chicago a unique opportunity to learn about medicine and science directly from medical students — something many of the kids hope to be one day.

Mini Medical School (MMS) launched during the 2021–22 academic year as a project funded by the Creating Pathways and Access for Student Success (CPASS) Foundation that CMS alum and former Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Mildred MG Olivier, MD ’88, developed as a fellow in the Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) program for women faculty in schools of medicine, dentistry, public health and pharmacy.

Dr. Olivier worked with CMS leadership on creating a program to address the need for a STEM educational pathway at CMS and engage students at the elementary school level, along with their parents/guardians and teachers, in a program designed to encourage healthcare aspirations among student populations traditionally underrepresented in medicine.

“That’s really the whole premise of the program: to inspire kids to become physicians,” said Jamal Turner, MSA, MJ, diversity coordinator for the CMS Office of Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion. “There are approximately 30 CMS students who volunteer with Mini Medical School, mainly M1s along with M2s, and they are the ones who present the material in the mini-med classes. The goal is to have CMS students of color participate so that the elementary school children can see someone who looks like them, in a white coat, telling them that they can do this, too.”

“The goal is to have CMS students of color participate so that the elementary school children can see someone who looks like them, in a white coat, telling them that they can do this, too.”

“I’m a product of a similar MMS in California,” said Juan Medina-Echeverria, CMS ’25, former Mini Medical School Executive Committee member and parent of a child in the 2023 MMS cohort. “I remember when I was in sixth grade, a group of medical students came to my under-resourced community and talked about the ‘mighty mitochondria.’ Now that I am in a position to give back, it made me realize the importance of community work and motivating under-resourced communities to diversify medicine and hopefully have better health outcomes in those underserved communities.”

Curriculum development for the MMS program begins with an Executive Committee that includes nine CMS students and MMS program director Myrtis Sullivan, MD, MPH, FAAP, assistant professor and assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at CMS. The students create lesson plans for each session of the program, with a focus on a different system of the body each week. Dr. Sullivan reviews all curricular elements to ensure the content is accurate and presented at the appropriate literacy level for fourth and fifth graders.

While all MMS sessions were held virtually its first year due to COVID, 2023 marked the program’s first in-person elements, including a white coat ceremony for the children, cardiovascular lessons that allowed the kids to practice CPR on mannikins and a commencement ceremony held at RFU. The program took place over five Saturday mornings from January through March.

A.J. Katzenmaier Principal Malika Rodgers addresses Mini Medical School students and their parents.

Each MMS day starts with CMS students administering a pre-quiz to gauge the children’s awareness of the particular system of the body that day’s class will cover. CMS students then guide the children, in breakout groups, through the day’s material and direct them in hands-on activities that reinforce the key concepts of the lesson. Everyone then comes back together to discuss what they learned and take a post-quiz that measures the children’s comprehension of the material. New this year is a nutrition component developed by Sarah Arora, CMS ’24, who holds a nutrition certificate and volunteered to create lessons specific to the body system covered each week.

All of this work is done on the CMS students’ own time, Mr. Turner said. “All the CMS student participants are volunteers. I put out a call for volunteers each year outlining the responsibilities involved with serving and ask the students to provide a statement explaining why they are interested in volunteering with Mini Medical School or why being part of this program is important to them.”

Lifelong Learners

One of the students who answered the call was Gloria Essien, CMS ’26. 

“When I was applying to the mini-med Executive Committee, we had to write an essay, and as I was writing, I thought about how much I love being around kids and watching them learn,” said Ms. Essien. “In a way, we’re all learning the same material about the human body, just at different levels — med school vs. elementary school. Watching how they absorb the information and listening to the questions they ask, how they explore their curiosity, is teaching me to interact with my studies in different ways. Kids remind us that we’re always learning, and that’s incredible to be around.”

White Coat recipients posed for photos with family members following the ceremony.

As a member of the program’s Executive Committee, Ms. Essien took a lead role in developing the content for the lesson focusing on neuroscience and mental health. She and fellow committee member Joseph C. Rumenapp, PhD, CMS ’25, covered basic anatomy of the nervous system — illustrated by a colorful paper “brain hat” to help students name the different lobes of the brain — followed by an age-appropriate discussion about mental health.

“When we talked about mental health disorders, that reminded me of how grown up kids are. Having conversations about such a heavy topic, we made sure we had content that was accessible to 10-year-olds so we could talk about it in responsible ways,” said Ms. Essien.

Building rapport with the children throughout each session was a key element of the program’s success, she added. “We could tell when the students were starting to trust us more, because they were becoming more comfortable expressing their curiosity and coming to us with questions. Seeing those barriers dissipate the more they got to know us felt like an honor. For a kid to trust you, that’s like the ultimate reward.”

Ms. Essien grew up in Massachusetts and first became part of RFU when she was accepted into RFU’s Pre-Matriculation Program (PMP), a non-degree program for underrepresented students interested in medicine. She completed PMP, applied to CMS and was accepted as a member of the Class of 2026.

A group shot of the spring 2023 Mini Medical School cohort in an A.J. Katzenmaier Elementary School hallway following the white coat ceremony.

Her enthusiasm for the MMS program, and her joy in working with the children, became more evident with each anecdote she shared about her experiences. “It was so fun to see the kids who would show up each week in their white coats, with a stethoscope around their neck, telling us, ‘I’m going to be a doctor like you!’ Or the students who maybe weren’t sure about medicine but tell us they’re here because they love science. And you want to encourage that and tell them whenever you can, ‘Yes, I believe you can do that!’

“I distinctly remember being in fourth grade, maybe 11 years old, and there was a contest where we drew what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I think I drew a surgeon in a scrub cap,” Ms. Essien said while recounting her own journey toward a career in medicine. “I just thought it was cool at the time. Now I think back on that moment and see how everything snowballed from there to now, with me being a medical student.

“You never really know exactly what moment is going to plant that seed in a kid, so even if only a couple of our AJK students decide that yes, this is their passion and they are determined to pursue it, then I think the program will have done its job.”

Making An Impression

CMS students Joseph C. Rumenapp, PhD, CMS ’25, and Juan Medina-Echeverria, CMS ’25, reflect on what their involvement with Mini Medical School means to them.

On the Mini Medical School White Coat Ceremony

“Tonight was one of those nights that I will reflect on and smile about for a very long time. I saw kids gleam with excitement when it was their turn to get their white coat. I saw parents who were beaming with pride when their child’s name was called. I saw kids pull the arm of their parents, smile and point to their siblings walking across the stage. I saw a principal genuinely finding joy in her job as an administrator. I saw community partners relieved and happy that hours upon hours of hard work finally came to fruition. I saw CMS faculty members and our dean caught up in a moment of joy and awe.” — Joseph C. Rumenapp

A Parent’s Pride

“My son, Giovanni, was at the right grade level to participate in MMS this year. He hesitated at first, because he believed he didn’t have the science background to take part. But we encouraged him, and after his first class, Giovanni loved it! He wouldn’t stop talking about all the amazing facts he had learned, the experiments and the nutritional aspect for that class. As a parent, seeing the impact this program made was amazing. Seeing my son motivated to pursue a career in medicine at such a young age and sparking curiosity was golden.” — Juan Medina-Echeverria

Sara Skoog is a staff writer with RFU’s Division of Marketing and Brand Management. In addition to writing for Helix and other university publications, she also produces Pulse, RFU’s monthly e-newsletter.