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Young Girls Learn About Cancer and Fertility Firsthand


By Yadira Galindo   |   August 26, 2015

Encouraged by her parents to pursue her interests in studying medicine, Lesley Guarena applied for the 2014 Oncofertility Science Academy at University of California, San Diego. Taught by physicians and researchers, she knew the five-week science program for high school girls would challenge her, but when she arrived she started having second thoughts.

Lesley Guarena

“I never had to open a scientific journal before,” said Guarena. “It was difficult to discern what I was reading. It created a lot of insecurities and made me question if I should be in this program.”

The doubts, though, vanished when she realized she wasn’t alone. One of her instructors told her that he had similar uncertainties when he was starting off.

That was last summer.

Today, Guarena is preparing to kick off her undergraduate studies in neuroscience and physiology as a Gates Millennial Scholar at UC San Diego. Her experience in the academy solidified her interest in pursuing medicine; she’s considering a career in gynecology.

“The academy helped open my eyes to the possibilities of who I can become,” said Guarena. “But it has value beyond academics. The way the program is structured, it also offers personal growth and sisterhood. The other girls and I learned to help build each other up and bond.”

Now in its eighth year, the academy ran the 2015 summer program with 15 girls from 15 different schools throughout San Diego County. There were 88 applications, said program coordinator Patricia Winter.

“Most girls come in without having experienced this kind of rigorous classroom experience,” said Winter. “They must be self-motivated.”

This year the academy accepted only 11th or 12th grade students who had completed one year of biology and chemistry. Their essays and recommendations were evaluated by researchers and science teachers. The payoff is that program graduates emerge with a greater understanding of science and research.

“The number of women who enter the field of science pales in comparison to men,” said Jeff Chang, MD, program director and reproductive endocrinologist in the Department of Reproductive Medicine at UC San Diego Health. “This program is trying to empower women to show they can achieve the same goals as men.”

Chang, professor emeritus of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine, and many other physicians and researchers volunteer to lead evening and weekend sessions that include topics like reproductive physiology, cancer biology and reproductive bioethics.

“We asked faculty if they would volunteer on a Saturday and the response was tremendous,” said Chang. “For me, it’s part of the mission of being an academic. It is an incredible feeling to encourage these young women to become more interested in the field.”

It isn’t all lectures. Donning their white coats, the students visited Scripps Institution of Oceanography to learn about sea urchin fertilization, which is similar in function to humans. They also had the opportunity to attend an in vitro fertilization clinic and work at stations where they learned about ultrasound technologies and sperm imaging.

At the end of the course, the students present their scientific posters during a graduation ceremony. The top presenters are invited to a national conference in Chicago to present in front of other like-minded students from across the country.

Many of the graduates have gone on to study science. A peer of Guarena’s is a Gates Millennial Scholar studying chemical engineering at UC San Diego. Previous students have gone on to Georgetown, University of Notre Dame, Brown, Yale, West Point and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

High school students from San Diego County can apply for the 2016 summer academy. Applications will open Dec. 1 and must be submitted by Feb. 13, 2016. Contact for information.

There is a $400 fee per student, but scholarships are available. The program is privately funded. Donations are welcome.

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Obstetrics and Gynecology