Making research careers sound cool, Jimmy Kimmel-style

When we got an NIH grant last year to ascertain how teens could get their peers interested in research careers, we did not anticipate turning to Jimmy Kimmel for inspiration.

Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News” segment is notorious for asking unsuspecting pedestrians to share their opinions about ridiculous topics from a new “scented” iPhone to the “appointment” of Judge Judy to the U.S. Supreme Court. While the interviews are purely for amusement, at times they reveal the embarrassing lack of public knowledge, adding weight to the saying “don’t ask questions you really don’t want the answer to.”

Inspired by Kimmel’s clips, a group of predominantly minority high school students from Chicago public schools in the TEACH STRIVES program took to the streets of the University of Chicago campus last summer to ask students what they think about research. TEACH STRIVES, is an NIH-funded grant that seeks to use peers to motivate and influence teens through social media and their peers. While few students may consider research careers organically, receiving information from their peers via online social networks could potentially influence them.

What did these students find when they asked their peers about research? Well, not surprisingly term “research” had a largely negative connotation — “lots of paperwork,” “lab rats.” However, our teens went one step further. They found studies that would be of interest to them — about things they cared about, such as teen health with cell phone use. When presented with research that linked cell phone use at night with depression, teens on the street were inspired to learn more. Unfortunately, this idea that research is esoteric and irrelevant is common amongst teenagers. Ask your average teenager what they aspire to be and more often than not a “researcher” will not be a contender. In fact, data suggests that few high-achieving high school students are considering a career in research, let alone healthcare research.

Why is this important? To make breakthroughs in science and medicine for the future, we need a healthy pipeline of diverse, talented teens to consider entering research careers in STEM fields. Recently, STEM fields have received increasing national attention with discussions of how best to encourage students to pursue these careers. However, if a national strategy to increase pipeline programs and student interests is to be effective, it is imperative that interventions to boost initial interest in clinical research (and other STEM fields) among minority youth are undertaken.

As amusing as the Kimmel-style video the TEACH students created may be, the act of sharing it and asking questions about research may well be the best way to influence career interest and engagement in youth. So, while we await the results of our formal study, we ask that you share our video with a young person near you.

Samantha Ngooi is project manager, TEACH STRIVES. Vineet Arora is principal investigator, TEACH STRIVES (Spreading Teen Research Inspired Videos to Engage Schoolmates), which she co-leads with Dr. David Meltzer, both faculty at the University of Chicago. Additional faculty include Dr. Jeanne Farnan, Dr. Shannon Martin, and Dr. Audrey Tanksley.

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