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HST Students Volunteer Time and Enthusiasm at PhUn Day

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Story by Elizabeth Dougherty

On Saturday, November 2, a group of 20 HST students headed to the Boston Children’s Museum to volunteer their time at Physiology PhUn Day, an event organized by the American Physiology Society and designed to get young children excited about medicine and science. Since 2010, students in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program have helped make the event a success.

HST students manned booths about bones, joints, lungs, hearts and the medical devices used to examine them. At a hand washing booth, children rubbed a gel that glows under black light on their hands, raced to the bathroom to try to scrub it off, then came back to see how they’d done. “It was very eye-opening for both kids and parents,” says Elisa Walsh, a second year HST medical student who is interested in pursuing pediatrics as a specialty.

Each year, HST’s student government, the Joint Council, elects public service chairs who organize a series of community service activities. In addition to PhUn Day, HST recently participated “Big for a Day,” an event held in conjunction with the HST Women’s Group and Big Sisters of Boston.

“HST students are widely recognized for their efforts to improve the human condition through biomedical research,” says Julie Greenberg, Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) director of education and senior lecturer. “Less obvious, but equally significant, is their commitment to making a local impact through educational and community service activities like PhUn Day.”

PhUn Day began with volunteer training, which included “loosening exercises” inspired by improvisational comedy. “It helped us learn to open up and work with children,” says third year HST PhD student Nikhil Vadhavkar.

Several booths had hands on activities. “In one, we made snot out of jello and corn syrup and talked about its importance in catching bacteria,” says third year HST PhD student and public service co-chair Jenny Chen. “It’s nice to pass down medical knowledge since that’s what we’re studying.”

Second year HST student and public service co-chair Britni Crocker manned a booth that let kids take a turn being the doctor. “I got to learn to take someone’s blood pressure, which I didn’t know how to do since I’m an engineer,” says Crocker. “Then I got to teach kids to do it. It gave them a chance to play around with medical equipment in an atmosphere that wasn’t as scary as a doctor’s office.”

At a booth about the digestive system, Vadhavkar asked kids if they knew what his prop — a pile of carrots — would become after being eaten. “They all looked up at their parents because they didn’t want to say it,” he says. “But it got them hooked. Kids think poop is hilarious.”

Once he had the kids engaged, Vadhavkar asked them if they thought it would be possible to put a tube as long as the room inside their bodies. “You see them figuring out that they’d need to coil it, just like it’s coiled inside the plastic model,” he says. “Explaining something in the vocabulary of a small child requires a different level of understanding. It was a good challenge. ”