Recently, the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program was named the 2011 recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
Marilyn Winkleby, who has lived in Mountain View for 25 years, founded the program in 1988 and traveled to the White House on Dec. 12 to accept the award along with some colleagues.
"I am delighted that the program that has been sustained for so long is getting national recognition," Winkleby said.
The program provides about six weeks of hands-on training in science and medicine for under-represented and low-income high school students from all over Northern California.
The professor of medicine started the program shortly after she began working at the university after recognizing that "there weren't that many people here with backgrounds like mine."
Winkleby lived on a chicken and avocado farm in a rural Southern California town until she began high school. By then, her family could no longer make ends meet, so they moved to Sacramento where she attended a high school where there was no college counselor and little demand for one among the students.
And yet Winkleby found her way through an undergraduate degree and ultimately earned a doctorate at U.C. Berkeley before landing at Stanford.
"I didn't want to forget my background and where I came from," Winkleby said.
Her desire to stay close to her roots contributed to her decision to settle in Mountain View.
"Mountain View is incredibly diverse," Winkleby said. "It was the place for me to live. Its whole environment of embracing diversity was instrumental in my husband and I being able to do our work and raise our children successfully."
Winkleby and her husband adopted two children; she said the diversity-valuing Mountain View community made raising them easier.
The professor is convinced that her life experiences have led her to take up research on topics her colleagues would never have considered.
The majority of her professional studies have dealt with health disparities in low-income communities — a topic she was familiar with that she found interesting.
The way she sees it, physicians that come from low-income backgrounds are more likely to be bilingual, choose to work in a medically underserved community and to relate to a diverse patient population. That's why Winkleby believes so strongly about the youth science program.
The students in the program come from all around — Sacramento, Kings City, Salinas and San Francisco, as well as Mountain View. They live on campus with Stanford undergraduate students with similar backgrounds.
"They can literally see a path that's close in time to theirs," Winkleby said. "This creates a real bond. It creates a sense of community and sends the message to the high school students that they are smart, and though they may have not had equal opportunities when it comes to education, they can still make it if (they) do these things."
The $25,000 prize that comes with the award is great, Winkleby said — it will likely go toward the program's scholarship budget — but the legitimacy that the recognition of the National Science Foundation brings to the organization is far more valuable.
The program halfway toward its goal to raise $4 million to create an endowment that would pay to host 24 students a year, tuition free, indefinitely, Winkleby said. "We're hoping this (the award) will help us leverage the final $2 million in donations."
The timing of the award "couldn't be better," Winkleby said. Stanford does not pay for the program and the organization has had to fund its operating budget year after year with grants and contributions from donors. Winkleby won't be there forever, and said she worries about the program's survival when she leaves Stanford.
Losing the program would be a tragedy in Winkleby's view. The students get so much out of the time they spend on the Stanford campus, as they have access to state-of-the-art scientific equipment and facilities, she said.
Schools are in such disarray and have so many challenges in terms of staff turnover and a lack of emphasis on science, Winkleby said. She is confident that the program has prompted many of its former attendees to pursue careers in medicine and science.
"They're here in the best scientific environment that you can get, and they're here for free, and everyone is saying, 'Great job!'"