By Wendy Sarubbi | June 9, 2015 4:27 pm

Dr. Lisa Barkley knew she wanted to be a physician at age 12 during a youth enrichment program at her local hospital in New Jersey. “It meant the world to me to find out more about what doctors did and how I could get there,” she said, and now as a UCF College of Medicine faculty member and associate dean for diversity and inclusion, Dr. Barkley is trying to inspire other young people in the same way.

Her Health Leaders and Explorers (HEAL) pipeline program is designed to give children from underserved communities inspiration and training for future health careers. On June 1, the latest class of Health Explorers – from Osceola County’s Horizon Middle School – completed this year’s enrichment program with a celebration.

Since January, Horizon students have focused on the science behind sports, including how water fuels the body and the effects of injury. They received hands-on instruction on how to make a splint for someone with an injured wrist. Their learning sessions culminated in a visit to the College of Medicine, where they took a campus tour and saw first-hand the innovative classrooms and labs where medical students study.

“The best part was being able to talk to real students at the College of Medicine,” said Horizon 6th grader, Natalie Wojick. “We were able to see what the classes look like and get the first-hand experience of what it’s like to be a medical student.” Natalie’s father has multiple sclerosis and she said working with the medical school helped her decide she wants to be a neurologist. “I’ll have more ways to help him,” she said.

Several parents attended the closing ceremonies, and Dr. Barkley explained to them the importance of getting young people experienced in scientific research early if they are to pursue health careers. As a part of that effort, the students all presented research on specific sports topics including hydration, the effects of over-exercising and the role of exercise in mental health and sleep.

“I really have become an academic as I grow up and learn more about science,” said 6th grader Rebecca R. after she presented research on how exercise affects each body system. College of Medicine faculty members voted Rebecca’s research poster as the best in the group.

“When you have kids who can start focusing in middle school, they are more apt to continue on the path,” said Dr. Carolyn W. Hopp from the UCF College of Education and Human Performance. She and Dr. Barkley partner are running the Health Explorers program and its various educational settings. The two hope to light a spark in the young students, and help point them in the right direction toward pursuing a health career.

“I tell them, ‘Of all people, why not you?’ ” Dr. Barkley said. “If you have a goal and you have this in your heart that this is something you want to do, then there really is nothing that can stop you.”

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