Karabots Kids

Karabots Kids.

Karabots Junior Fellows Jessica Phares, Tri Nguyen, My Truong, Yahmemato Debleye, Dominique Thomas, and Alena Bardlavens partake in a medical drawing class. Image courtesy of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

On a late Wednesday afternoon a group of high-school students get to step back in time. 

At the front of a small classroom inside the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Robert Hicks stands in full Civil War garb, playing the role of a 19th-century pharmacist. Hicks, director of the College’s Mütter Museum, asks how they would treat a soldier of that era suffering from a headache. They shout out modern treatments—Tylenol, aspirin—and Hicks feigns confusion. “I don’t know what those things are,” he says.

The students search their memories for older remedies—opium, whiskey.

“A kind of bark?” one asks.

Hicks nods his head. “The willow tree.”

Success! The imaginary patient has been prescribed a treatment, courtesy of the Karabots Junior Fellows.

The Junior Fellows—often referred to as the “Karabots Kids”—are a group of 22 eleventh-graders from multiple schools in the Philadelphia area, who come to the College every week as part of a three-year mentorship and academic development effort. These students come from populations underrepresented in the health-care field—which is predominantly middle-class, white, and male—and the hope is that this program will encourage them to pursue future studies in medicine or science. “It’s not a chance to fulfill a dream,” College CEO and director George M. Wohlreich says of the Fellows. “It’s more fundamental. Some of these kids don’t know they can even have this dream.”

Through various projects and experiences the fellows learn how science relates to the world. There are in-house workshops, like the one Hicks is teaching, but also field trips to other museums and cultural events around the city. The kids are invited to the labs and offices of health-care professionals who explain the behind-the-scenes activities of their jobs and answer such questions as “What were you like in high school? Did you have a boyfriend?”

Jacqui Bowman, the program’s director, notes that these connections humanize the achievement process. The kids meet a dermatologist, for example, and think she’s a cool lady. That, Bowman says, leads to the thought: “She did it, so I could do it.”

Every week the Junior Fellows learn about professional options they might one day decide to pursue. Take Faith Konate, who started the program with an interest in psychology. Then she decided epidemiology was more exciting, though this preference soon gave way to obstetrics. She recently returned to psychology, she says, but it could change. Her friend Elana Roadcloud, on the other hand, has a single, steady focus: sports medicine. Another classmate, Michelle Yoo, admits that for a while she wanted to be a TV doctor, inspired by shows like House. Now she’s leaning toward landscape architecture.

Though architecture isn’t connected to health, for Bowman this choice fits the big-picture goals of the program. Success, she says, is the kids continuing their education in some way, whether through a two-year college degree or a doctorate. Her personal mission in pursuit of this goal: “To send these kids into the world more able and knowledgeable and confident in their ability to make things happen.”

The program started in August 2009, and since then the Karabots Kids have been making all kinds of things happen. First, they created the Mütter Museum exhibition Splendid Skulls, which opened to the public in May 2010. After being given unlabeled animal skulls they hit the library and the Internet, identifying owls, sea turtles, and gorillas. Next, they collaborated with Bowman to curate the exhibit—participating in every step of the process, from writing label text to designing the show’s layout. That summer the students built on their experiences through internships at the college, where they worked alongside staff in the development office, museum, building maintenance, and more. Bowman involved many of the organization’s 1,400 adult fellows—a group of both practicing and retired researchers and doctors who serve as mentors to individual students and help them through their three-year program. The first two years of the program have already created an unintended but welcome side effect: staff and fellows say the Karabots Kids have unified and energized the entire college, which used to be renowned for its closed doors. “If we’re only for ourselves, what are we?” Bowman asks.

The Karabots Kids are stepping out into the city this summer for short externships, which include working in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and science-focused museums. Then, in the fall, the program’s staff will help their students prepare for the SATs and college applications. Meanwhile, a new class of Junior Fellows will be welcomed to the college.

“Programs like this have a multiplier effect,” Wohlreich says. “One family member doing something different resonates throughout families and schools.”

Right now the students are whipping together Sawyer’s Cheap Crimean Lemonade—part sugar, part lime juice, part water. Hicks explains that these “tonics” were distributed to soldiers to boost morale among the exhausted, war-weary men.

“So these tonics are placebos?” a student asks.

Hicks says yes. The student nods her head, connections clearly firing in her brain. Another dead-on diagnosis, courtesy of the Karabots Kids.

Jennifer Dionisio is the associate editor of Chemical Heritage.