Voicing Diversity

Tuesday, January 7, 2020


The lack of diversity in health professions and in higher education continues to be a prominent concern today. UCSF students Devan Diwanji, Paul Wei and Lauren McHenry started Brain Camp at UCSF to address this gap and do their part in removing barriers in education.

“I realized how much of an impact we have as students at UCSF,” said Diwanji, a fifth year Medical Scientist Training Program student. “To get our voices out, in our own way. We need to support initiatives like [Brain Camp].”

Diwanji, Wei, also a fifth year MSTP student, and McHenry, a third year medical student, founded Brain Camp back in 2016 during a meal discussion.

Although they had minimal background in running such a program, they realized that creating a free, accessible, engaging science camp was feasible given the resources available at UCSF.

With a mutual interest in outreach, diversity, and mentorship, they set out to create a sustainable, evolving, and exciting experience for San Francisco’s underserved high school students.

“I want to start something that will allow this experience to be shared with those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them,” said Wei.

Brain Camp tries to supplement high school students with future academic opportunities when administrative support at their own school is lacking. Wei pointed to an exchange with a student that highlighted the need.

“Brain Camp has a day where students go to UC Berkeley and tour the campus,” he said. “During the first year of the camp, the admissions presenter mentioned that he visited all the high schools. One student raised her hand and mentioned no college admissions officers came to her high school. After mentioning who their high school counselor was, the admissions presenter said the counselor never returned any of their correspondences. There you see the importance of investment at these different levels and the inequity of being in a school where you have the administrative support.”

Once they were ready to pitch the idea, Wei, Diwanji and McHenry met with the UCSF Early Academic Outreach Office, the Department of Neurology, and Dr. Daniel Lowenstein. Without hesitation, their idea was on its way to becoming a reality.

Alongside UCSF students and faculty, they pieced together a week-long curriculum that would incorporate hands-on activities, scientific discussions, and college prep workshops.

Soon, Brain Camp coordinators were doing classroom visits at San Francisco and East Bay public high schools to share this free, fun experience with the students.

“It started out small, 13 applications, 13 acceptances,” McHenry said. “[It was an] excellent cohort. Last year there were over 70 applications, 28 which were accepted. Many of the coordinators expressed an interest in interacting with the San Francisco community. Brain camp was an excellent opportunity to get into the city and engage with the community who also share this passion.”

Now in its fourth year, Brain Camp continues to receive support from UCSF students and faculty and welcome enthusiastic high school students to UCSF to explore brain anatomy, discuss the interplay between mind and behavior, and participate in college prep workshops.

Their biggest challenges thus far have been recruiting interdisciplinary members and establishing a system for making Brain Camp a longitudinal experience.

“But the time requirement and resources make this a challenge,” Diwanji said.

With the vast resources and supportive community at UCSF, the co-founders have started to tackle these challenges and pass the torch on to four motivated UCSF students, Sandon Griffin, Allison Comri, Robin Lea, and Kate McCluskey.

Last year the students piloted the Mentorship Program where Brain Camp student alumni connect with UCSF students for a year following the camp.

“Exposure camps are wonderful,” Diwanji said, “but we want to capitalize on that momentum and have them keep thinking about these opportunities, and support them because we believe in them.”

The barriers facing the accessibility and diversity in higher education are taken down by initiatives like Brain Camp. Diwanji, Wei, and McHenry demonstrated that even as students, we have the power to share our voice, act on our voice, and make change.

“I’m happy we’re stepping outside of UCSF and making connections with people and students who are unified with us in our mission,” McHenry said. “Hearing and seeing their voices, stories, and potential is really motivating and drives us to grow to include more people.”