By James Ponder

You should have seen the smiles on the parents' faces when Shannalee Martinez shared the news that she was recently accepted into the Loma Linda University School of Medicine the other night.

"I started doing research at LLU the summer of 2004," Shannalee Martinez told the crowd of approximately 200 students, parents, and high school teachers from 35 Inland Empire high schools, as well as faculty researchers from LLU.

"I attended Redlands Adventist Academy and Loma Linda Academy, graduating from the latter in 2005." The impact wasn't lost on any of her audience, but the faces of the parents seemed particularly hopeful as they considered the prospects of their child becoming a research scientist or physician.

The occasion was the Apprenticeship Bridge to College (ABC) program high school interview night held on Monday, April 5, 2010, in a fourth floor conference room of the Centennial Complex. From the group of 50 high school students in attendance, 15 would be chosen to participate in the ABC program at LLU this summer.

According to Marino De Leon, PhD, director of the Center for Health Disparities and Molecular Medicine (CHDMM) at Loma Linda University, ABC stands for the Apprenticeship Bridge to College program, and Ms. Martinez' success is a major feather in the organization's cap.

How did she achieve her lofty goal? In large part through the hands-on training she received as a participant in the ABC program, a project that recruits talented and motivated Inland Empire high school students in their junior and senior years to spend a summer conducting scientific research under the mentorship of a research scientist at LLU.

The goal of the program—which is supported by a grant from the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, part of the National Institutes of Health—is to encourage local high school students who are under-represented in the sciences to reach their potential and become biomedical research scientists to serve their own communities.

"I worked in Dr. Carlos Casiano's laboratory in the Center for Health Disparities and Molecular Medicine during the summers of 2004, 2006, and 2008," Ms. Martinez went on. In 2009, she received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, before returning to LLU to continue working in the lab.

"Dr. Casiano took the lab members to lunch," she remembers, "and surprised me with the news. We made a little scene in the restaurant!"

They weren't the only ones. "My family threw me a celebration party at my cousin's house," she continues. "We made pizza and watched a very depressing documentary about dolphin slaughtering in Japan. I still don't know who picked the movie."

Neither does she know what area of medicine she plans to concentrate on during her medical education at LLUSM. "I don't have a specialty picked out at this point, but I know that I'd like to integrate my clinical work with my research. I'm fascinated with cancer biology, and I plan to continue studying/researching it during my PhD studies. I also love children, and can see myself working in a pediatric setting as well. But I have a lot to learn, and I'll let God handle the future. I'm just trying to keep up with Him."

In welcoming participants to the event, Dr. De Leon noted that, "The ABC program is part of the commitment of the LLU School of Medicine to train a diverse workforce of biomedical scientists and physician scientists who will serve to address health needs in our region and globally. He also said the program is administered through the CHDMM, which supports educational and research initiatives to reduce health disparities.

H. Roger Hadley, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, warmed the crowd with his trademark parodies of his profession. Dr. Hadley is a urologist, and loves to show a photo of his father, brother and self, urologists all, dressed in matching blue jackets emblazoned with "Hadley & Sons Plumbing" across the back. But his talk turned serious when he recounted how the LLU School of Medicine has trained more than 10,000 physicians in its 100-year history.

"The ABC program is an integral part of our efforts to maintain an uninterrupted pipeline," he said, "to our educational programs. It enhances our goal of continually increasing the number of biomedical scientists and physicians serving the communities of San Bernardino, Riverside, and the surrounding area."

Following Dr. Hadley's comments, Leslie N. Pollard, PhD, vice president for community partnerships and diversity, noted that the ABC program is a dream being fulfilled. "It can make a difference bringing students from our local community to fulfill their dreams of becoming a doctor."

For her part, Daisy De Leon, PhD, assistant to the dean for diversity at the School of Medicine, said that the program, "offers students a great opportunity to participate in a summer research internship that makes a significant difference in their lives."

Carlos Casiano, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry and microbiology, agreed with Dr. De Leon's assessment, noting that the ABC program "changes students' career perspectives for good. Parents and teachers certainly notice the difference."

So far, the ABC program has awarded 102 research internships that have assisted a total of 81 students to achieve their goals of learning about a career in science first-hand. Not all have enjoyed the same outcome as Ms. Martinez, but each one has gained an insider's perspective on a career field with vital significance for the future. More than that, they have broadened the awareness, among members of the Inland Empire high school community, that fascinating and fulfilling research careers are available to motivated students who really want them.

"The ABC program has exceeded all our expectations," concludes Dr. Marino De Leon. "Our data shows that it increases the success of ABC alumni in enrolling and persisting in a college science major, and enrolling in and completing a doctoral degree in medicine and/or biomedical science. Programs like the ABC are playing a key role in increasing the medical and scientific capacity of the nation and the community at large."