The STARs are the limit for summer scholars

Just weeks ago, 17-year-old Ellie Villarrubia saw herself as a future neonatologist, engrossed in the care of newborn infants.


But after being exposed to nearly 60 medical specialities and the day-to-day responsibilities of hundreds of doctors, nurses, research scientists and other health care professionals, the St. Mary’s Dominican senior now finds herself increasingly open to the idea of becoming a surgeon.


“(Surgery) wasn’t as gruesome as I thought it would be,” said Ellie, one of six Catholic school students tapped for the 2012 “STAR” program (Science, Technology, Academics and Research), a free, six-week summer camp sponsored by Ochsner Health System’s academic division that gives local high schoolers an insider’s peek into the inner workings of a hospital.


“It’s really interesting getting to see inside the body,” said Ellie, an altar server at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish and a member of Dominican’s National Honor Society, pro-life and student ambassador clubs. During the robotics rotation, Ellie and her fellow STAR campers got to watch a prostatectomy – the surgical removal of the prostate gland – via a live video feed.

Cutting-edge tools examined

“We got to play with the DaVinci robot – the robot that the doctors use to perform endoscopic surgery,” said Ellie, explaining that the technology involves the insertion of a camera and surgical tools into a series of tiny incisions. “The surgeon is on the opposite side of the room, looking at a 3-D view (of the surgery site),” Ellie said. “They use their thumb and forefinger to operate these little pincers to move the tools around. It was just really interesting to see how precise and detailed the imaging was.”

An intensive, varied program

With a mission to prepare students for successful careers in science, medicine or health care, STAR has operated six summer camps since 2005. Students receive hands-on experience in a dizzying variety of specialties, including pediatrics, craniofacial surgery, radiation oncology, psychiatry, neurosurgery and internal medicine. They also are introduced to many lesser known fields, including the allied health professions, medical illustration and flight care.

STAR counts young scholars from 20 metro-area high schools among its alumni. The acceptance process is competitive. This year’s program had 61 applicants competing for 16 spots via an essay, letters of recommendation and interviews with both candidates and their parents.

“We don’t only look at grades or ACT scores; we look at what they’re doing outside of school and in the community. It’s really important that we get students who are interested in furthering their education,” said Allison Sharai, Ochsner Foundation’s senior administrator for academic outreach, noting that applicants must have “a significant interest” in pursuing a career in health care or science.

An illuminating six weeks

“A lot of times they come in saying they want to be a nurse, but at the end of the program they say they want to be a neurosurgeon, because they actually get to see what it means to be at least 60 different careers,” Sharai said. “There are a lot of careers in health care that people don’t necessarily know about, so it’s our job to get our students to open up to that.”

Marc Gibson, a Holy Cross junior, entered STAR thinking he was open to all medical fields. He said the program has helped him to identify the areas he definitely doesn’t want to go into – urology, OB-GYN and radiology – and to find a better fit for his personality and interests – emergency medicine.

“I got to shadow an ER doctor for 3 1/2 hours,” said Marc, 16, a parishioner of St. Edward the Confessor and member of the Holy Cross debate team. “I saw a little bit of everything – some internal problems, some external problems, some post-op problems. When you are an ER doctor you are a generalist, you get to see everything. You get to work with so many specialties to help people.”

Marc said his serious interest in the sciences dates from his sophomore year, after enjoying the biology classes of teacher David Lindsey. He he will be taking three AP courses in the sciences in the coming school year: Biology II, Environmental Science and Chemistry I.

“If not for STAR, it would have been another eight years to learn what I did,” Marc said, advising his peers who have an interest in medicine to spend as much time as possible in a hospital setting shadowing doctors or working as a volunteer in any department.

Real-life’ experience gained

Jim Huang, a Jesuit junior, said that while he is still open to pursuing his original career goal of neurology, he is now intrigued by the specialty of OB/GYN since completing the camp.

“STAR opened up so many opportunities to me. I have a lot to think about in the next couple of years,” said Jim, a Jesuit debater and the co-founder of his high school’s social justice club. “I really liked the human interaction and the continuity of care involved in OB-GYN,” Jim said. “You can have such a big impact on women’s lives. I like seeing them happy and fulfilled.”

One field that Jim had written off as being too “generic” – pathology – was found to be much more interesting after the six-week camp. Not only do pathologists study the cause of diseases in a lab setting, they also examine cadavers to study what went wrong at the cellular and tissue levels.

“This internship allowed me to see that there is so much more to learn than what you do in high school and your extra-curriculars,” Jim said. “I was so stuck on academics. STAR has shown me what the real world is like. I would have never have imagined how intensive, extensive and innovative the medical field was.”

Focus on people, not gadgets

Marc said the most important thing he took away from STAR was learning that medicine is not just about technology and advancements.

“We have that ‘scrubs’ mentality of ‘fix them and push them out,’” Marc said. “I got to see that medicine is based on the patients. If you don’t spend time in a hospital, you don’t understand that. It was a very humanizing experience.”

Three other Catholic high school students were among the 16 scholars selected for STAR 2012: Nicole Bryer of Mount Carmel Academy; Patrick Madden of Archbishop Rummel; and Kaitlyn Tholen of Dominican, who was chosen as the program’s “junior volunteer,” in which a scholar too young for the program goes on all the rotations.

STAR is open to residents of Louisiana who attend any high school in the state and are advancing to the 11th or 12th grade. Graduating seniors are not eligible. For more information on STAR 2013, call 842-5321 or email Sharai at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Catholic World News

Clarion Herald Outlets