Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance Cultivates Student Curiosity

Jul 16, 2019

Thirty high school students from across Arizona spent the summer at the University of Arizona, where they were steeped in ignorance — a misunderstood concept that should be understood simply as the first step in the process of scientific discovery. They will celebrate their journey at a graduation ceremony Friday.

The Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance, or SIMI, was founded in the early 1980s with the goal to teach students to ask questions, a skill necessary to push science and medicine forward. Students are matched to mentors according to their interests, and are immersed in laboratories performing a wide range of research on topics from cancer to kissing bugs.

SIMI founder Marlys Witte, MD, UA College of Medicine – Tucson professor of surgery and director of the Medical Student Research Program, takes a positive view of ignorance. Rather than being embarrassed to ask questions, she says, students need to learn to hone their “questioning techniques” to clarify their current understanding and set them on a path of inquiry.

“Students, faculty and even scientists often think ignorance is something bad, but it’s actually the terrain in which all learning and discovery take place,” Dr. Witte says. “Questions are how you get there and how you explore the frontiers of medicine. We’re not going to make discoveries unless we’ve admitted our ignorance.”

Presenting ignorance as a “fact of life” helps students realize it’s not something to be ashamed of. Instead, it can inspire the accumulation of knowledge, ultimately leading to scientific breakthroughs. To prepare students for a lifetime of discovery, Dr. Witte believes educators should prioritize the questioning process rather than focus on restating information found in textbooks. She says the questions students ask offer more insights into their comprehension than their ability to memorize answers.

“I can see from their questioning how their understanding is growing,” Dr. Witte says. “When they have trouble asking questions, they realize they’re not understanding what’s going on.”

Another strategy SIMI employs to cement students’ grasp of a topic — and to build valuable communication skills — involves working with videographer Juan Ruiz to create a short film about their laboratory work, explaining complex topics in simple terms for a general audience.

“They’re very smart, and catch onto the things they’re learning very fast,” Ruiz says. “The problem begins when they need to explain things to others. I’m not a science guy, so my job is to pull them back and get them to explain it to me in a way that I can understand.”

Each lab is headed by a faculty mentor, who guides students on their journeys and might continue to work with high-performing students in subsequent years.

“We have such dedicated mentors,” Dr. Witte says. “They go out of their way to make a family-like environment in the lab, and give the students the opportunity to pursue their own questions.”

Science and medicine both suffer from underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities, and rural areas often face serious physician shortages. In response, the program recruits disadvantaged high school students, including those from rural and tribal communities and under-resourced schools, to give them opportunities to live in a college dormitory and spend a summer engaged in scientific research. Many students are inspired to pursue careers in biomedical fields.

“We start with disadvantaged high school students who have not had opportunities — students who may never have been in a science fair, never had a summer program,” Dr. Witte says. “We’ve had 741 students come through the high school program. That’s a significant number of diverse students we’re cultivating.”

SIMI’s staff members think of themselves as “talent scouts,” finding students from all corners of the state and introducing them to what a career in medicine or science might look like.

“Our focus is the pipeline into medical school and graduate school,” SIMI program manager Grace Wagner says. “Our greatest accomplishments are the students who started in high school, stayed in the same lab as an undergrad and then went on to medical school or grad school.”

Even if a SIMI alum doesn’t end up practicing medicine or working as a scientist, staff members believe the program sets them up for success no matter what career they pursue.

“The students walk away with an entirely different perspective,” says Graceann Thompson, SIMI program coordinator.

“They’re learning to express their curiosity,” Dr. Witte adds. “Many of them are very shy, but once you pop the cork, it starts flowing. It’s life-altering for many of the students.”

SIMI is open to high school, undergraduate and medical students, and is supported by several grants from the National Institutes of Health. The 2019 program drew high school students from Douglas, Globe, Phoenix, Rio Rico, Tuba City and Tucson. Participants will mark the completion of their seven-week, paid internship with a graduation ceremony, to be held July 19 at 10:30 a.m. in DuVal Auditorium at Banner – University Medicine, 1501 N. Campbell Ave. Francisco Garcia, MD, MPH, a SIMI alum and assistant county administrator and chief medical officer for Pima County, will be the keynote speaker. For more information, visit ignorance.medicine.arizona.edu.

Video from 2017 featuring SIMI students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvJ96QSIlh8

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences

The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. The UA Health Sciences includes the UA Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the growing Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, the UA Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona and the greater Southwest to provide cutting-edge health education, research, patient care and community outreach services. A major economic engine, the UA Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 900 faculty members and garners $173.5 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram)

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