With experts anticipating a major shortage of medical professionals in the next decade, two L.A. Unified schools – Venice Senior High School and the Girls Academic Leadership Academy – are doing their part to grow the next generation of leaders in biomedical sciences. Along with an El Segundo high school, the campuses are piloting a curriculum designed to prepare students for 21st century careers as doctors, nurses, paramedics and others who apply biomedical principles to save lives.

Venice High students Giovanna Ordoñez and Ernesto Gonzalez talk with UCLA resident Dr. Christine Nguyen-Buckley about projects in Year Three of their biomedical program.

Developed in partnership among the California Society of Anesthesiologists (CSA), the UCLA Department of Anesthesiology, Project Lead the Way and California Assembly Member Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, the effort was launched in a special event last week at Venice High.

“We are excited to welcome this new partnership to our schools,” said Fonna Bishop, an instructional director who oversees Venice High and others in Local District West. “Enabling our students to receive hands-on application from residents at UCLA is a terrific example of the type of meaningful and relevant educational experiences we seek to offer our students.”

The program links students to specially trained teachers and UCLA physician residents to bring real world biomedical skills and concepts into Los Angeles classrooms. While CSA provides overall program coordination and underwrites the cost of annual teacher training, Project Lead the Way provides the curriculum and summer professional development, and the UCLA Department of Anesthesiology coordinates classroom presentations by physician residents and will host field trips to its Simulation Center.

Ridley-Thomas, who attended the launch, said he and his staff are working diligently to provide broad-based community and public support for the effort.

“I am thrilled to see this program brought to reality in my district,”  he said. “This is a strategic way to inspire and empower students from a diversity of backgrounds with high quality public education, while filling our healthcare workforce pipeline with young people who are passionate and have practical skills.”

Venice High Principal Oryla Wiedoeft welcomed the opportunity to enhance instruction in biomedical sciences at her school, where she says most students are from backgrounds largely unrepresented in medical fields.

“The great benefit of partnerships like this is it helps provide a level playing field for students who may otherwise lack access to quality instruction in STEM fields,” she said. “We have so many students who are incredibly smart, super-capable and really thrive in programs like this. It provides a solid foundation of knowledge and hands-on experiences that will give them the edge they need to be as successful as they can be in careers of the future.”

A major organizer of the effort is science teacher April White, who is part of the faculty of the Venice Science Technology Engineering Medical Math (STEMM) Magnet. White began her career with a degree in biochemistry, conducting research in the biotech industry for six years before deciding to transition to education.

“I needed new challenges,” White said. “And recognizing the shortage of women and minorities in medical fields, I felt I could make a significant impact in education.”

After obtaining a teaching credential and master’s degree in education, White taught for several years at the Ambassador School at RFK before joining the biomedical pathway faculty at Venice in 2015, teaching courses in human body systems, medical interventions and AP chemistry. She helped build the program that has now attracted the attention of the program’s supporting partners.

“April is one of the most dynamic and forward-thinking teachers I have ever worked with,” Wiedoeft said. “We are so fortunate to have someone of her caliber to help build the program our students need to thrive as the next generation of scientists.”

Science teacher April White guides her student, Giovanna Ordoñez, in growing different strains of bacteria in the lab.

A handful of White’s students, serving as hosts for the launch, spoke with enthusiasm about their program.

“The biomedical science pathway is one of the reasons why I came to this school,” said junior Ernesto Gonzalez. “I wanted to find ways to connect biochemistry – which I’ve always been interested in – in ways that help others.”

Gonzalez explained that having spent much of his life caring for a close family member who suffered from neurological disorders fueled his interests.

“When I was younger, I thought of becoming a nurse as a way to help people,” he said. “Now that I’ve learned so much in this program and had the chance to interact with real professionals, I want to do all I can to help care for children who often go unnoticed. I want to become a pediatric neurosurgeon.”

During the classroom visits, Gonzalez and his classmate, Giovanna Ordoñez, presented findings from their research on different strains of E. coli bacteria.

“We found a way to grow a superbug,” Ordoñez said. “It’s a strain of bacteria that can overcome the usual obstacles like antibiotics and make what is usually easy to treat more challenging.”

The students discussed how their research helps practitioners stay ahead of microorganisms that can threaten the health and well-being of patients.

Like Gonzlaez, Ordoñez has her sights set on surgery as a career option – albeit in a slightly different arena.

“I want to be a surgeon in space,” she said. “People are already living there. What happens when they need emergency medical attention? As growing numbers of people live outside the planet, we’re going to need more surgeons out there.”

Gonzalez’ and Ordoñez’ ambitions are potentially good for the United States. The Association of American Medical Colleges projects that over the next ten years, the nation will suffer a shortage of between 61,700 and 94,700 physicians, with the most significant gaps in those having surgical specialties.

According to the California Healthcare Foundation, there is already an urgent need to develop new strategies to address the skills gap and build up its future workforce here in the Golden State. The launch of the biomedical sciences pilot is expected to be a step in the right direction.

“Part of our strategy is to bring teachers together across schools as a cohesive learning community,” said Executive Director CSA David Butler. “Part of how we do that is bringing these medical professionals and community leaders to help students see, envision and explore a host of different careers in medicine and health care.”

Partners hope the program will serve as a model that can be expanded to dozens more schools and thousands more students across Southern California. Additional expansion is in the works through partnerships with resident programs at the University of Southern California, Stanford University, University of California Davis and elsewhere.

“We don’t mind being the guinea pigs,” Gonzalez said smiling. “We want this program to grow like bacteria.”

Ordoñez laughed in agreement.

“We want to become like a superbug, overcoming barriers and infecting everyone with this phenomenal program.”