Sitting in a seat at the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell (University of Massachusetts), surrounded by thousands of high schoolers from around the country, listening intently to 24-year-old science prodigy Shree Bose, I felt truly happy. Yes, I was overwhelmed by the number of people that were there — I had thought there were going to be only a couple hundred. Yes, I couldn’t see very well — I had chosen my seat poorly, but thankfully there were three massive screens showing what was happening on stage. But I barely even noticed my poor seating choice, because I was just so thrilled to be at The Congress of Future Medical Leaders, an opportunity that I was lucky enough to enjoy the summer after my junior year of high school, and it’s an opportunity I hope others decide to enjoy, too.
In brief, the Congress of Future Medical Leaders is an invitation-only program for high school students interested in science, medicine or research based on standardized test results and an expressed interest in the subjects. On Dec. 7, 2017, merely days after I got the letter of invitation, I received an email from my high school counselor, John Boshoven — sent to the then-junior class at Community High — saying that the organizations sending these letters or emails were scams trying to get your money, that these “honors” probably weren’t all that: “Buyer beware!” as Boshoven cautioned. At this point I was confused: Why would they say that Nobel Laureates and professors from renowned medical institutions were speaking at this conference if it was all a scam? If it was a scam, it seemed a bit over-the-top to me, so I did some research.
Looking through the list of past speakers, a name was familiar to me: Michael Brown. Michael S. Brown, M.D., is the winner of the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research in cholesterol metabolism and his discovery of the LDL receptor; the recipient of the 1988 National Medal of Science for his “contributions to modern medicine”; a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine and Foreign Member of the Royal Society (London); and only slightly less prestigious, my grandmother’s first cousin, whom she grew up with like a brother. I reached out to him, telling him that I had been invited to the Congress, and asking if he thought it was legitimate and a good use of time and money. He told me that yes, he would recommend the experience to anyone interested in medicine/science, that he had spoken at the Conference three times, and that he was, in fact, speaking there again this year. With this information, I knew the Congress couldn’t be a scam, no matter what Boshoven had said, so I signed up for it and started planning my trip to Boston.
Setting the Stage
Let me back up a little: What is the Congress of Future Medical Leaders?? It’s a three-day program outside of Boston put on by the National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists, and thousands of high schoolers attend it each year. There are approximately 25 speakers, and attendees listen to their presentations, meet other students from around the USA with both similar and different interests, meet some of their favorite speakers, and get exposed to a lot of and varying types of science.
The first email came Jan. 6, 2018. It was from Richard Rossi, Founder and Director of the National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists; in it, he introduced himself and gave a general overview of what the Congress would be like.
From January through May, we received emails about every other week. Then in June, we got one every other day. Nearly half contained a video message from Rossi himself, while the other half were filled with information about various aspects of the Congress. The emails were very helpful in figuring out what was actually going to happen there — even if at times they did seem a bit much.
And So It Begins
Skip ahead to June 25, 2018 and I’m walking through the doors of the Tsongas Center. It was overwhelming, to say the least. Thousands of high schoolers from all over the country, dressed in professional attire — dresses, suits, etc. — flocked into the hockey arena. Upon picking up our “Delegate” badges, we were instructed to go into the main arena and take a seat down on the floor or in the spectator seats along the sides. There was a giant, T-shaped stage at the front; not knowing anyone there, I sat in one of the seats on the floor, waiting for the Congress to begin.
At 6 p.m. sharp, Rossi took the stage. Waving his hands and shouting his catchphrase — “Energy, baby, energy!” — he welcomed us all and talked about how the Congress was set up and what to expect in the coming two and a half days: 27 speakers, lunch and dinner breaks, activities with fellow delegates, and time to meet with the speakers.
The very first thing we did was an “icebreaker activity” amongst the delegates: Turn to a person you don’t know and greet them as if you’ll get a full scholarship to college if they like you in the next 10 seconds. All around the arena, delegates turned to the people next to them or behind them and frantically shook their hand and introduced themselves, often causing the other to laugh. We then had two minutes each to talk about why we were at the Congress, what we hoped to get out of the experience, and what we wanted to do in science or medicine in the future. It was a quick and easy way to get to know the other people we were with.
The 27 speakers were split into four categories — Prodigies, Patients, Grand Masters, and Masters of Life Success and Happiness — and while they were all interesting in different ways, some of them were truly special. Preceding each of their presentations was an introduction via a short video created by Rossi and his staff that played on the three large screens.
The first speaker was a Prodigy; Shree Bose took the stage after her introductory video ended, and delegates were immediately on their feet cheering and clapping for the amazing work she had done. At only 18, she won the first-ever Google Global Science Fair for her discovery of how ovarian cancer cells grow resistant to a chemotherapy drug. Bose spoke eloquently about how she worked to achieve her research goal, encouraging viewers to follow through with their questions and begin research of their own “because you never know,” she said.
Rossi came on stage, prompting delegates to turn to each other and discuss what Bose had just talked about, and the noise level of the arena increased dramatically. After a few minutes, Rossi turned attention back to the screens for the next introductory video: Carmen Tarleton, a domestic abuse victim — her husband had beaten her and doused the majority of her body with industrial-strength lye. Doctors described her injury as “the most horrific injury a human being could suffer.” Her injuries were beyond repair and the only way to save her was to attempt a transplant, one of the world’s first full face transplants. Walking out onto the stage, every person in the room was again on their feet clapping. She began her story with explaining how she was injured, how she got through the physical and emotional trauma, and how she came to be on the stage. She talked about the miracles of modern medicine, motivating the delegates to create even more. She spoke of the power of forgiveness, noting that sometimes you need to forgive others to help yourself heal.
After she spoke, there was a 10 minute Q&A during which we asked her questions about her talk specifically and her journey in general. We submitted our questions via Twitter. Not all of the presentations had planned Q&As, but those that did were a wonderful extension of the presentation and opportunity to individualize the experience.
After each speaker, Rossi would urge delegates to discuss with someone new, specifically about what they liked and learned and who had been their favorite speaker to that point. He gave us each two minutes to explain why and to say who we were looking forward to hearing from later that day.
Unrelated to any bias I may have had before, one of the best Grand Masters was Michael Brown. To be honest, I was a little nervous about his presentation because the night before he had told me that he was “worried people wouldn’t find it funny.” Based on his words, I was worried as well. But when his presentation began — titled “How to Earn a Nobel Prize: Nine Simple Steps” — everyone laughed, including me.
If you’re wondering what those nine steps — so you, too, can earn a Nobel Prize — here you go:
1. Be curious: “Curiosity is at the core of science,” Brown said.
2. Train with a Nobel Prizewinner (or the equivalent): “I fell under the spell of a brilliant and highly critical man who taught me how to think like a scientist,” Brown continued.
3. Find a partner to share the adventure: “[Joe Goldstein and I] immediately bonded because both of us were curious,” Brown shared.
4. Find a problem that fascinates you: “We wanted to solve the problem of familial hypercholesterolemia,” Brown explained. “We saw a child who was six years old and was hospitalized because she was having heart attacks. We usually see heart attacks in 60-year-old men, so how was it happening in a six-year-old child?”
5. Find someone to pay for your work: “We were fortunate to find several wealthy donors,” Brown admitted.
6. Work very hard: “There has to be a time in which you are so absorbed with your scientific problem that you think of little else,” Brown instructed.
7. Solve the problem: “We discovered that cells have a second source of cholesterol: they can use the cholesterol that is contained in low density lipoprotein particles,” Brown explained. “Homozygous children — like the one we saw at NIH — have two copies of the defective gene and they produce no LDL receptors.”
8. Be lucky: “If you ask any scientist if they were lucky in their experiments, and if any say that luck played no role, that person is telling a falsehood,” Brown acknowledged. “Mother Nature is sometimes kind.”
9. Pick the right spouse: “This is the most important step of all,” Brown insisted. “Without this step, none of this would’ve been possible.”
Brown had a surprise for the delegates directly after this ninth step: his wife, Alice, was introduced and did the Q&A session with him.
The final speaker of the Congress was Sean Stephenson, aptly named “the Three Foot Giant.” He spoke for an hour — quite a bit longer than the more-common 15–30-minute presentations — but many commented that they wished it could’ve been even longer. Since he is a professional speaker, not a physician or scientist, he was considered a Master of Life Success and Happiness, evident throughout his presentation. Stephenson told stories that made the crowd laugh, gasp, drop silent and at times even cry. It was the perfect, inspiring ending to the Congress.
I met people at the Congress on various paths in the field of medicine: there was someone from Massachusetts who wanted to be a researcher, and she hated the live surgery we viewed and the graphic pictures some speakers included; there was someone from North Carolina who wanted to be a trauma surgeon, so she loved the live surgery and tried showing us gory pictures throughout the entire event; there was even someone from Hawaii who wanted to be a pediatrician, and he disliked the surgery but was okay with the graphic pictures. It was amazing to hear from other people about what they plan to do with their lives and why, and to talk with others that don’t yet know but are exploring opportunities in science and medicine. One person I met there even changed her mind after watching the live surgery, originally wanting to be a researcher but then deciding to be a surgeon.
Personally, I love science. I love the “why’s,” the “how’s,” the “what’s.” And over the course of those three days I learned so much about science, but more importantly I learned about myself, and received excellent exposure and advice on the endless possibilities that await me. Additionally, I met hundreds of high schoolers from all over the country who share my interest in the sciences and were equally awestruck and inspired to make a difference moving forward. For many of the people I met, they talked about how for the first time they felt comfortable and accepted, having found their ”tribe” as Rossi referred to us. Looking back to December 2017, the beginning of this wonderful journey, I’m forever grateful that I did not listen to those who advised me to ignore this opportunity, and I am hopeful that others will take advantage of opportunities like this one in the future, whether it be for science, business, art or something else. While it might not offer a direct admission to college, the life-changing experience offers so much more.