When Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach, was convicted of sexually assaulting eight of his student players, few could foresee that he was about to hurt thousands more students, future physicians, and aspiring scientists across the nation.
In response to his sickening crimes, the state of Pennsylvania – with numerous other states following suit – passed Act 153 to prevent similar offenses, which added an immense regulatory burden on all workers, especially those at universities, who have any contact with minors.
As a Penn State student, I have seen first-hand the damage wrought by this controversy, as well as the disproportionate response – one largely carried out more for show than substance.
Their actions have inadvertently disincentivized students from pursuing medicine and science.
Millions of dollars have been wasted, by government mandate, on fingerprinting and background checks for anyone working in a building where a 17-year-old has stepped foot. Whether these well-intentioned measures have actually prevented crimes, or simply caused the loss of countless hours, dollars, and even jobs, is hard to say.
Fearful of lawsuits, universities across the nation have banned students under 18 from interning in labs or volunteering in clinics, making our high school students less competitive and less prepared for their futures.
Moreover, their actions have inadvertently disincentivized students from pursuing medicine and science, which, despite being in desperately low supply in our economy, are also the most difficult fields for students to observe, practice, and appreciate without a laboratory, a clinic, and a mentor.
Americans are notorious for their unhurried approach when it comes to choosing and pursuing a profession. In most other developed countries, students begin undergraduate education at 16, and often have a path in mind by middle-school.
Across Europe, many high schools have specialty tracks tailored to individuals’ interests and focused on career preparation – one student attends a science-oriented school where he or she works in a lab, while another attends one with a rhetorical focus and interns at a law firm.
Early Professional Experience
In the US, most students are not exposed to professional settings, such as medical clinics or scientific research laboratories, until they are sent off to college at age 18 or older. By the time they finish their undergrad degrees, they’re often already mired in student debt so accumulating even more debt over the course of decades worth of training seems incredibly unappealing.
Consequently, the US is facing a drastic shortage of physicians in the coming decades, with as much as a 100,000-physician shortfall predicted by 2025, despite ever-inflating government health care spending.
Personal revelations that can only be had in a professional setting, are better made earlier in life.
The prolonged physician education timeline, which is undoubtedly in part to blame for the impending shortage, is the product of an outdated medical education system (spanning back to the Flexner report of 1910 which found that contemporary medical students were severely unprepared) that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
However, even small educational opportunities in said professions before college means that students would graduate with more years of experience, more opportunity and passion for scientific innovation, and more determination to pursue fast-track programs (like the accelerated 7-year BS/MD program I currently attend).
Of course, most students will not be rewriting string theory in high school, and some may even find that their ‘dream’ career is not for them. But these kinds of personal revelations, that can only be had in a professional setting, are better made earlier rather than later in life.
Advancements in science and medicine have bred greater specialization and longer training, and we can no longer afford students losing years of their lives figuring out what they want to pursue or switching halfway through training.
Not every future physician or scientist must start his or her path in high school, but there is no reason every high school student should not have the chance to be a physician or scientist for a day. While in some communities such opportunities are relatively accessible, they are sparse elsewhere. And this disparity is only exacerbated by the thousands of pages of federal, state, and local regulations and legal precedents.
Outmaneuvering The System
A few teachers, like my own former physics teacher, Dr. Janet Waldeck, have pioneered a national high school ‘Science Research’ curriculum, which attempts to get ambitious, diverse, public-school students into university labs and clinical settings. Rather bizarrely, imprisoned football coach Jerry Sandusky has proven a major obstacle to this project.
I have interacted with too many students who have no idea why they are studying science in the first place.
It is natural to respond to Sandusky’s heinous crimes viscerally and feel driven to action. As a Penn State student, I have witnessed first-hand the suffering and fall-out caused by this despicable human being. I understand the fear that parents must feel when sending off their children to distant and unknown settings – fear which has been exploited by politicians for cheap political victories, such as the passage of Act 153.
But I have also interacted with far too many science students who have never set foot in a laboratory, or worse, have no idea why they are studying science or medicine in the first place.
I am grateful to my high school and to outstanding individuals, like Dr. Waldeck, for finding every possible path to outmaneuver draconian restrictions and get students into professional settings. I am however ashamed, as a former high school student, as a future physician, and as an American, that it must be this difficult.
The bedrock principles of freedom and opportunity upon which our nation is founded implore us to respond gracefully and show restraint in regulation – even in the face of fear-inspiring evil – to avoid jeopardizing those very loved ones whom we are trying to protect.
Adam Barsouk is a medical student at Jefferson Medical College.