UVA’s SOAR Program Helps High School Students Discover New Passions

An active presentation for SOAR

Aicha Hermes gives a presentation to fellow SOAR scholars and instructors. Through her experience in SOAR, she has discovered new interests and reinforced her passion for gynecology. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

High school student Aicha Hermes has always been connected to STEM. Whether it was in her classes, her relationships with her doctors or personal experience, she always found herself gravitating toward the medical field.

As a rising high school senior, she is enrolled in Albemarle County’s Math, Engineering & Science Academy, which features a curriculum geared toward science-related careers in the medical field. Since she was a child, she knew she wanted to study medicine to help others in the way doctors have helped her and her family.

“I feel like STEM can change the world and shape it in a much better way,” Hermes said, referring to the academic abbreviation for science, technology, engineering and math.

So when she learned of the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Summer Opportunities in Academic Research program, she seized the opportunity and applied to join this summer’s cohort.

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The Hardest Working Icon: The Rotunda Enriches Student Life Daily

SOAR has grown since Drs. Brynne Sullivan and Sana Syed from the UVA Department of Pediatrics co-founded the program in 2021. The program originally accepted two students each summer, but now includes six students in the program thanks to additional support from the dean of the School of Medicine, the integrated Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia, UVA Cancer Center and the UVA Surgery Department.

Local students Chris Robles-Mendoza, Dena Mohammed Ali, Georgia Foster, Haniyya Sanad, and Jaafar Hermes joined Aicha Hermes in the 2023 class. During the eight-week course, they arrived in the morning for education and career discussions with UVA doctors, nurses and scientists to understand the paths to careers in medicine. In the afternoons, the students visited mentors in research labs to experience science in action.  

SOAR co-directors Sullivan and Syed said they want to give students an opportunity at an earlier stage than medical school or undergraduate studies to explore biomedical careers and understand the opportunities and different pathways of STEM.

SOAR student and instructor group photo
SOAR student Dena Mohammed Ali poses with her instructors. Through lab research and guest speakers, SOAR exposes their students to medical fields they might not know they are interested in. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Program staff members Angela Gummadi and Will Monroe helped guide the students on their exploration of STEM fields and provided daily mentorship, while program manager Adam Greene helped organize and coordinate this year’s program.

“The hard work and dedication shown by these students is truly remarkable,” Greene said. “It is such a pleasure to support the next generation of talented young scientists as they plan their futures in STEM.”

SOAR also exposed the students to fields “that they might not even know they’re interested in,” Syed said. “The idea is to have them walk through a day of what a biomedical research career may look like, and also see that people who have these careers can be from similar backgrounds as them.”

This goal resonated with Hermes. Going into the program, she had her eye on gynecology. But in her lab assignment, she worked with nephrology instead, which deals with the study of kidneys.

“I didn’t even know what nephrology was, and I was like, ‘I don’t like this. What if I’m not going to be good enough?’” Hermes said. But after working with her mentor, she ended up loving research.

Group photo of SOAR program
The SOAR program hosted students and administrators over the summer. From left: Jaafar Hermes, Haniyya Sanad, Will Monroe, Kayla Scott, Aicha Hermes, Dena Mohammed Ali, Georgia Foster, Brynne Sullivan and Angela Gummadi. Not pictured is the sixth SOAR student, Chris Robles-Mendoza. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“It’s so rewarding, seeing how eye-opening it is for them,” Sullivan said.

Rising high school senior Haniyya Sanad had a similar experience in the program. When she first entered Monticello High School, she didn’t know she was even interested in biology. But as she took more STEM classes, her passion for medicine began to blossom. 

Oncology piqued a particular interest for Sanad. “I did a lot of case studies in one of my courses and cancer was just something I became extremely passionate about,” she said. “I wanted to study more about this devastating illness. So when I heard about this SOAR program, I was like, ‘I have to do this. I need to know more.’”

At SOAR, she was able to further explore her interest in oncology through her lab research, which focused on leukemia.

“For now, my goal is to be an oncologist, [and] also doing research to help find better treatments,” Sanad said. “I was really impressed with the research in my lab. … My lab inspired me.”

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Mike Mather

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