Creating Future Scientists

Albert Schweitzer Fellows and second-year medical students William Runge and Ricky Singh have taken their love of science to middle school classrooms in Hillsborough, N.C., hoping to foster and develop interest in the sciences among young students.

Creating Future Scientists click to enlarge William Runge and Ricky Singh introduce a cadaver brain to their middle school students. Photo by Hannah Crain/UNC Health Care

by Hannah Crain - hannah.crain@unchealth.unc.edu

William Runge wasn’t always planning on becoming a doctor. His advanced degree in aerospace engineering led him to work in aircraft design at the University of Sydney, in Sydney, Australia, and to complete a Fulbright U.S Student Program in Belgium, where he worked with the European Space Agency.

By the time he left Belgium, however, he was ready to shift his interest in problem-solving to medicine.

“The idea of improving people’s lives directly – improving their well-being – always appealed to me,” Runge says.

After enrolling at the UNC School of Medicine, Runge was excited to connect with someone who had a similar path to medical school, Ricky Singh. In high school, Singh earned numerous medals as a Science Olympiad Competition and in the International Space Settlement Design competition. As an undergraduate at UNC, Singh studied chemistry and physics and was awarded the NASA and Industry Internship through NC Space Grant.

William Runge with Student
William Runge quizzes a student on different parts of the human brain. Photo by Hannah Crain/UNC Health Care
“Science always satisfied my intellectual curiosity by answering the ‘why’ or ‘how’ about some of the very basic aspects of living – why we sneeze, why we get sick, how we live longer lives – without giving them much thought,” explains Singh, who decided he wanted to become a doctor after volunteering at UNC Hospitals as an undergraduate. “There’s so much that is yet to be discovered, so this journey from impossible to improbable to fact drew me to science.”

Together, Runge and Singh searched for ways to remain connected to their interests in aerospace engineering while pursuing a career in the medical field.

“We looked for an extracurricular activity that would be both fun and meaningful,” Singh says. “Once we learned about the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, we knew it was a perfect opportunity for us.”

Partnering with Morehead Planetarium and nonprofit Communities in Schools of Orange County (CIS Orange), Runge and Singh created an academic enrichment course for middle school students with the goal of inspiring the young students to explore their interests in science. Dr. Denise Young, Director of Education and Planning at the Planetarium, serves as a community mentor for Runge and Singh, and the medical students couldn't be more pleased to have her help.

“Dr. Young provides a lot of teaching plans and materials for our class, and she’s been a huge help to us finding all the right resources,” Singh says.

Each week, the medical students travel to A.L. Stanback Middle School, in Hillsborough, to tutor students in the CIS Orange County after-school program and help them with their science homework. At the end of the course period, they present a lesson on human anatomy.

“We’re able to bring the Planetarium through CIS Orange to the students and also teach them the basics of health sciences with this Schweitzer project,” says Runge.

Derek Shepard, CIS Orange County Program Officer, is excited by the difference he sees the medical students making.

"If our middle school students are to someday pursue higher education in the sciences, educational opportunities that engage them through hands-on experiments, analyzing data, and thinking creatively is necessary,” says Shepard. “Ricky and William have been that catalyst; they’ve sparked an interest in our students to learn more about themselves and the world around them.”

Ricky Singh with Student
CIS Orange student Omar asks questions about the nervous system. Photo by Hannah Crain/UNC Health Care

In January, Runge and Singh organized a special class lesson, introducing a human cadaver brain and inviting students to see the specimen up close as they explained each function of the brain and the areas of the body controlled by it. By introducing the students to human anatomy as part of their creative lesson plans, they are promoting healthy lifestyles such as exercising daily and following a nutritious diet.  

“We want them to understand why the human body is so special and realize how lifestyle choices shape their health conditions,” says Runge.

Marianne Meeker, PhD, lecturer in cell biology and physiology at the UNC School of Medicine, serves as faculty mentor for the two Schweitzer fellows.

“This is really important outreach for the university,” Meeker says. “They’re serving as motivators, inspiring the students to think beyond their own experiences and to strive for something they may not have considered before.”

In the end, Runge and Singh believe that they are fostering an interest in science that sparked each of them as young people.

“I think it’s important for them to realize they can achieve anything they’re passionate about,” Runge says of the students. “Ricky and I see ourselves as examples of people who went through similar challenges to what these students are going through, and with this opportunity, we want to show them that medical students are no different than they are.”