STEM demonstration

Karma and Love, students at Webster Middle School, work with Toni Nigro and Diana Varnes during a recent after-school STEM demonstration. Nigro is one of 11 participants in the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, which addresses unmet health needs and develops future health leaders.

Toni Nigro, a student in Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences’ Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine program, is working hard to prepare for a career as a family physician.

Even so, every week she and guests from the medical and scientific communities demonstrate STEM projects to sixth- through eighth-grade girls at Daniel Webster Middle School.

“It could be anything from learning what DNA is to showing them a real human brain,” Nigro says. “We also brought in some robotics and showed them what programming is.”

This science, technology, engineering and math work isn’t a side project — it’s part of Nigro’s growth as a medical professional, as well as a way to improve the overall health of Oklahoma. Her project and dozens of others came about due to the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, a 12-month program designed to address unmet health needs and develop the next generation of health leaders.

Rachel Gold, program director for the Tulsa Schweitzer Fellowship, says the Fellowship uses a broad definition of health. It views health as not just an absence of disease, but as a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being.

“Oklahoma ranks the lowest in almost every health measure,” she says. “There’s a great need for innovative solutions to address those gaps right now, and to build leaders with the networks, skills and tools to work on those gaps for the long haul.”

Although the Tulsa Schweitzer Fellowship is housed at the University of Tulsa, it draws 10-12 fellows each year from the University of Oklahoma, OSU and Langston University, in addition to TU. This year’s group of 11 fellows comes from a diverse array of fields, including speech pathology, psychology, social work, law and fine art in addition to medicine — both M.D. and D.O. programs.

The current group of fellows also is the first all-female group.

Gold says Fellows must design a project that fills an unmet health need in the community. To ensure the effectiveness of these projects, each fellow must work with an established agency in the community to house their project.

Nigro chose to work with Daniel Webster Middle School to promote STEM education, as research shows most girls give up on scientific studies by the age of 12. By introducing students in the school to female doctors and scientists, Nigro hopes to rekindle their interest in STEM fields.

“None of them had met a scientist or career doctor, so this gives them the opportunity to pick their brains and see what they do,” she says.

Gold says a previous fellow, Alex Button of TU, noticed the Day Center didn’t have a good way to ensure the homeless regularly took prescription medication, which led to unnecessary trips to emergency rooms.

Button used educational tools such as visual pill calendars and regular meetings with participants to improve medication use. His system is still in place at the Day Center, as are many other projects established by Schweitzer fellows.

“Over 70% of Schweitzer projects get sustained in some way once the fellowship is over,” Gold says. “The Fellowship has become an incubator of unique solutions to health gaps for health systems, community organizations and the overall Tulsa community.”

Tulsa’s program also gives fellows an opportunity to become community leaders, as well as the chance to break out of disciplinary silos and interact with each other during monthly meetings.

“I’ve been in an all-woman fellowship this year with arts students, psychologists and others — an interdisciplinary team to bounce ideas off of,” Nigro says.

The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship was established in 1940. In 2015, Tulsa became the 13th chapter across the nation to establish a Schweitzer Fellowship program, thanks in part to funding from the Morningcrest Healthcare Foundation.

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