Photo of Claire Pomeroy and Saturday Academy students
Medical school dean Claire Pomeroy joined Sacramento High School students for a group photo during the opening of the 2007 Saturday Academy.

Teenagers, research projects, classroom lectures and Saturday mornings are usually not seen in the same sentence, let alone in real life. But for a group of mainly freshmen and sophomores from Sacramento High's School of Math, Engineering and Health Sciences, having the opportunity to take a series of classes taught by UC Davis School of Medicine students is the chance of a lifetime.

The program, called Saturday Academy, was founded in 2001 by three first-year medical students who realized they were in a unique position to serve as community leaders and mentors for local high schools, especially those schools with populations not well represented in the medical professions. Each year, over a period of four Saturdays, the medical students take time out of their own challenging schedules to spend time introducing groups of teens to what amounts to a condensed version of medical school.

On a rainy Saturday in early February, the morning starts off with a question from the dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, Claire Pomeroy.

“How many of you would like to be surgeons?” she asks.

Immediately, four….five….six hands go up among the group of 32 students assembled in the spacious lecture hall.

“If you're going to dedicate your life to something, what could be better than helping people with their health?” she adds.

Pomeroy emphasizes that the youngsters can make a difference and notes that this year's program is especially exciting because it's the first time the Saturday Academy has been taught in the new $46 million UC Davis Education Building in Sacramento. With sessions ranging from gross anatomy and radiology to physical exams, cardiology and scientific research, this “mini medical school” further adds to realism by having the students take their courses in exactly the same high-tech classrooms and lecture hall as any other UC Davis medical student.

First-year medical student Conor Schaye shares coordinating duties for the academy with classmates Zhanetta Malko and Dawn Sung. Taking time out from his own studies, he has organized other fellow students to help out with “rotations,” which are small group classes during the afternoon. After giving the introductory lecture on cardiology, he spends much of his time shuttling between rotations, making sure everything runs smoothly and on time.

Photo of medical student leaders discussing program
Medical student academy leaders take a moment to discuss the progress of their day.

Schaye later says the weekend academy is a good way to help ease the usual pressures of medical school. It also helps renew the idealism that originally led him to pursue a career in medicine, something he now gets to share with a very engaged group of teenagers.

“I'm doing something that could impact someone's life and perhaps help them realize their dreams,” says Schaye. “The students have lots of great questions and it's really energizing.”

Schaye's classmates, Tatiana Catanzarite and Emilie Dahod, are equally impressed by the enthusiasm of the Sacramento High students. They're teaching the day's rotation in gross anatomy, giving students hands-on experience with a heart, which, in this case, is from a pig.

“As medical students, we dissect the whole human body,” Dahod tells a group of five students assembled around her table. “It took us five months to go through it and it's the only time you can really go through everything.”

She encourages her group to closely examine the heart in her hand, explaining how certain muscles help the heart contract and how valves, pressure and blood flow work.

“That's tight,” says one of the students, as Dahod deftly handles the deep red heart. “The ones we've seen are all dried out.”

The small group setting also affords good opportunities for friendly, relaxed questions that go beyond just science and medicine. The teenagers ask Dahod about her class schedules, the amount of studying she has to do and where she went to college. It's the type of conversation any ambitious young person might hope to have with another student who's had more school experiences and could possibly provide some helpful insights.

Students teaching students is really what Saturday Academy is all about. Teenagers get a very special peek at both science and a preview of life in medical school. Similarly, UC Davis medical students get the chance to share their knowledge of medicine and a passion for helping others. It's something that clearly makes it very easy for everyone to get up early on a weekend morning.

Opening the world of medicine to high school students
Click on any of the photographs for a larger view.

 Photo of Dr. Pomeroy during class introduction  Photo of students