Growing Your Own Laboratory Team: Harvard’s Boston Children’s Hospital Internship Program

Oct 1, 2023, 09:23 AM by Jordan Rosenfeld

In 2009, John Baci, Executive Administrative Director of Anatomic Pathology at Boston Children’s Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, was struck by how few internships existed for students in pathology and other STEM-related careers on the outskirts of Boston, where he lives. This sparked an idea to call his daughter’s high school principal and ask if his students might enjoy participating in STEM-related work. The principal was so excited, Mr. Baci realized he had stumbled onto a great idea: an internship program that would connect high school juniors and seniors with hospitals and laboratories to teach these kids about careers in the laboratory sciences.

“The following summer we had 16 high school interns come out here and knock off every project that was ever pending in our department,” Mr. Baci says. The internship program has evolved in its 13 years from kids helping with random projects, such as creating a patient database or relabeling a slide collection, to making sure they get to spend as much time in all aspects of pathology as possible. “We’ve just gotten better and better at making sure the kids get exposure in all laboratory areas including histology, the cutting room, cytology, the molecular lab, even administration,” Mr. Baci says.

As an example, Mr. Baci explains, in this program, students will get to see the gross dissection of a real appendix, follow that appendix to histology where it’s being processed and then look at the microscopic slide of that appendix. “We make sure when they tour through the department, they tour it as a specimen would, so they know what happens to any pathology specimen,” Mr. Baci says.

Over the course of a summer, for six to eight hours per day, students get hands-on experience in all areas of pathology including anatomic, molecular, research, and administrative operations. They earn a decent wage too, usually $19 per hour, and a letter of recommendation for college, he says. The overall goal of the program is to nudge students toward pathology-based careers and medical laboratory science disciplines.

The program has been so successful that Mr. Baci says it now acts as a pipeline to his department “that certainly supplements what human resources is doing for our department.” In addition, the program has encouraged changes in high schoolers’ college plans. “Many high school students that wanted to go to school for something else, now say, ‘I want to be a pathologists’ assistant,’ or ‘I want to be a histotech.’ And they re-geared their major to do this based on spending a summer with us.”

The program is a win-win for everyone: The hospitals and laboratories get energetic, interested young students to help them do work; the students get incredible exposure to the sciences and career possibilities, since when it’s time to fill a job, Mr. Baci will often turn to the interns first.

Mr. Baci has made it a mission to speak to high schools and show them just how easy it is to set up such a program for their students, and to hospitals to explain how much time and money they can save by creating such a program.

When he hears from hospitals or laboratories that they are “too shorthanded” to set up an internship program, he says, “My answer to them is, ‘Let me get this straight, you’re too shorthanded to spend an hour training someone to do eight hours’ worth of work?’” In essence, the tiny amount of work it takes to start the internship makes up for itself exponentially on the other end.

The money to pay for the interns isn’t an extra ask, either, Mr. Baci explains, but should come out of existing staff vacancies. If there’s a vacancy for a pathology technician, for example, that goes unfilled, that may be $50,000 budgeted but unpaid. “That means the hospital is not spending that salary week after week after week after week. That’s the money I ask for, and I’m not asking for additional funds. This is not an extra position. I’m filling the position they gave me and also filling the vacancy gap.”

Derek Atherton, the principal of Hopedale High School in Hopedale, Massachusetts, which participates in sending students to Boston Children’s Hospital, was excited to begin the internship program for his students because, he says, “It was right in our wheelhouse, right what we’re trying to do—transform education, make it more exciting for kids, more hands-on, and give more authentic learning opportunities for kids. Trying to get kids more interested in the STEM fields is good for everybody.”

It’s particularly helpful as part of a program instituted by a former Massachusetts governor, called MyCAP, which stands for My Career and Academic Plan. Mr. Atherton says, “The MyCAP really has us focusing on careers sooner rather than later, and we’re fortunate as grade seven through 12, that we can get our students engaged in MyCAP requirements.”

Laura Ingemi, Hopedale’s school-to-career educator, finds that the program also gives students a real experience of what it’s like to be in the workforce. “They have those durable skills and have to advocate for themselves. They’re learning communication, problem solving, and critical thinking. I think this internship opens other eyes to the fact that there are so many different possibilities within healthcare and within the STEM field.”

And the program has a real impact on students’ career choices. Mr. Baci says that three of the interns who came from Hopedale High, who spent a month focused on pathology, all changed their majors specifically to biology to go into this field.

There are more success stories than that. In the internship program’s 13 years, they’ve seen their interns go on to take jobs as a physician, a pharmacist, pathologists’ assistants, histotechnologists, laboratory technicians, a medical examiner technician, healthcare researchers, pathology billing and coding specialist, and changed the college major of at least 26 students.

Part of what makes this internship program so successful, Ms. Ingemi adds, is that “career exploration is really hard to do in the classroom setting if you’re not talking directly to the professionals. So, having that direct access to the professionals in the field is really important.”

Mr. Atherton feels that school principals need to reach out to those people on their campuses who are passionate about career education. “This is the future of education. If you’re not doing this with your students, you’re not creating these opportunities for the kids, then you’re really doing a disservice to the kids.”

Mr. Baci calls the internship program “Arguably one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done in my life,” which is a “win-win-win” for everyone involved. He also recognizes the wonderful colleagues and professionals in the Boston Children’s Hospital Department of Pathology who have contributed so positively to this successful venture.