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DBMI summer program for MNPS high school students resumes

May. 24, 2022, 1:39 PM

  Daniel Fabbri, PhD

by Mia Garchitorena

High school students in Metro Nashville Public Schools who are interested in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and computer science can once again get paid internship experience through a summer program within the Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI) at Vanderbilt, thanks to initial funding from DBMI faculty member Daniel Fabbri.

“I saw a gap in our summer program’s high school funding. After my high school graduation, a summer internship in Silicon Valley accelerated my career. Local Nashville students can similarly jumpstart their careers, be exposed to problems at the intersection of health care and technology, and, importantly, get paid,” said Daniel Fabbri, PhD, assistant professor of Biomedical Informatics. “I’m paying it forward.”

Established in 2008, the Vanderbilt Biomedical Informatics Summer Program (VBISP) was designed to provide students from diverse backgrounds with biomedical informatics research experience, with the purpose of inspiring students to pursue a master’s and/or PhD degree and career in STEM fields.

The VBISP takes place over 10 weeks during the summer (late May through early August) and consists of high school, undergraduate, graduate and professional students. VBISP students work on informatics projects alongside faculty mentors in DBMI, take a professional development course to learn skills needed for success in graduate school, participate in a group design challenge and have opportunities to submit their research to scientific conferences and journals. All participants in the VBISP receive a stipend.

Leaders of the VBISP have recruited up to four local high school students each summer since 2012; however, due to the pandemic, they were unable to include high school students in the program in 2020 and 2021.

“The high school component is the hardest to fund,” said Kim Unertl, PhD, associate professor of Biomedical Informatics and director of Graduate Studies in DBMI. She explains that the National Science Foundation (NSF) only funds undergraduate students through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant. (In April 2021, the NSF awarded Unertl a three-year grant renewal for DBMI’s REU-PATHI.) Grants from the National Library of Medicine have funded high school students in the past, but don’t do so often.

Thankfully, high school students’ participation will resume this summer and hopefully beyond. For summer 2022 and 2023, Fabbri will cover up to four high school students’ stipends, and possibly a portion of a teaching assistant’s time, using funds from the sale of data privacy and analytics company Maize Analytics, which he founded and was its CEO until it was acquired by SecureLink in May 2021.

Program participants for summer 2022 will include: three high school students, 11 undergraduate students and two graduate students.

“One of our core objectives in the VBISP is broadening our outreach and compensating students for their work,” said Unertl. High school students are usually recruited from local schools, including Martin Luther King, Jr. High School and RePublic High School in Nashville. “Dr. Fabbri’s funding gave us the ability to get the relationships we had with local high schools started again.”

In addition, VUMC’s Development team established a fundraising page for others to donate towards high school students’ stipends in the future. Anyone within or outside VUMC can make a gift online.

Unertl hopes that funds from Fabbri and donors will expose more high school students to informatics and help them discover different pathways towards STEM careers.

“Our program helps high school students understand that there’s place for them in STEM fields. In a couple of cases, it’s helped give them the confidence to go forward in computer science and apply what they’ve learned in the real world,” said Unertl. “They also get to work with college students and graduate students, and they get to see what the next steps can be in education.”

“I hope that this program introduces more young people to biomedical informatics early on,” said Fabbri. “Some of today’s biggest challenges lie at the intersection of health care and computer science, which these high school interns can start to address.”

If you’d like to support high school students’ participation in the VBISP, donate here. Learn more about the VBISP here.

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