by Ruth Levy Guyer , Ph.D., Office of Science Education, OD

When asked what he liked about NIH's second annual Mini-Med School, one participant remarked, "the willingness of NIH to lift its tent flap and let `civilians' observe. ... It added to my own databank and will help me be a partner with my physicians in my health care. What did I dislike? You are kidding, right?"

For nine consecutive Thursday nights this spring, 250 "civilians"--ranging from a 13-year-old who hopes to become a physician to a 77-year-old retired chemist--gathered in the Clinical Center to spend two hours learning about various aspects of biomedicine, from anatomy to zoonoses. By the end of the free course, the students knew not only a lot about the history of medicine, bioethics, new discoveries, and therapies, but also boasted vocabularies enhanced by several hundred powerful scientific and technical terms. At the moment, more than 1,300 names are on the waiting list for next spring's Mini-Med School, which can only accommodate 250 people, enrolled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Bruce Fuchs of the Office of Science Education, who developed and runs the Mini-Med School, says he became aware of the tremendous public need--and demand--to know more about biomedical science years ago through his speaking engagements as a faculty member of the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. One of this year's Mini-Med School students concurs, saying, "The general public is, for the most part, woefully ignorant of the most basic principles of medicine."

Another benefit of the program, according to Fuchs, is that it lets people find out what motivates NIH researchers. For example, after the final lecture by NCHGR Director Francis Collins, one participant expressed the wish "that many more people could hear of his work, so that perhaps the unconscious fear of Brave New World situations could start to be dispelled." Others reported that the "mini-med" experience affected their views on NIH funding, saying, "You have really piqued my interest in biomedical research as well as support for this kind of research," and, "It's very important to educate the general public about developments/research in medicine. It will build support for continuing funding."

Collins considers public outreach to be both a scientific responsibility and a personal passion. "No longer can we afford to hide away in the ivory tower," he says, noting that he "always learns something about public perceptions" through such talks. The NCHGR director adds that public lectures "fulfill that `teaching instinct' that most scientists have buried down there somewhere. ... If they don't get the chance, they are missing out on a very significant part of being a scientist."

 NCHGR Director Francis Collins , left, discusses genetics-related issues with Mini-Med School students.

When giving his genetics lecture, Collins says the hardest part to convey to nonscientists is the mechanism of gene linkage. "ELSI--the ethics, legal, and social issues--is the part they love," he says, "and it is the easiest part to explain and to get people excited about." Another speaker, Evan DeRenzo of the Clinical Center's Bioethics Program, says she thinks the public enjoy learning about bioethics because the issues it embraces are "everyone's newspaper reading, everyone's 6 o'clock news." Observing that people who don't have medical professionals in their family are often at a disadvantage in dealing with health issues, DeRenzo looks to the Mini-Med School and similar lectures to help equip people with the tools they need to get more out of their medical care.

NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, who spoke about AIDS, says that what he finds most difficult to explain to a lay audience is the complexity of HIV disease. "Of particular importance is the concept that although the body can partially control the replication of the virus, the virus continues to replicate in an infected individual for many years until it finally overcomes the immune system," Fauci says. "In contrast, virtually every other virus that infects humans is cleared within a matter of days to weeks by an appropriate immune response."

When asked how the Mini-Med School program could be improved, most students just wanted more--more lectures, field trips, and video and audiotapes of the sessions. A teacher in the audience asked whether NIH Director Harold Varmus' lecture on the multi-hit induction of skin cancer could be taken on the road. "If children, especially teens, can actually hear about the studies and see the results, they would be much more likely to use sun block than they are now or to stay out of the sun," she said.

Mini-Med School participants were also fascinated by the talk and video presentation by NIMH's David Pickar illustrating the behavior of schizophrenia patients before and after clozapine treatment. Said one student, "The video helped me see what schizophrenia does to people and how with proper drug treatment patients can find some relief. Thank you for the valuable research you are doing to help these people get out of the hell they are living in."

Scientists who are interested in getting involved in the Mini-Med School should contact Fuchs (phone: 402-2470; fax: 402-3034).

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