While visiting her grandmother in a small town not far from the Himalayan foothills, high school student Riya Agrawal had a revelation about the importance of radiology.
Riya had traveled with her parents to see her extended family and had met her father’s cousin, a radiologist. His story left an imprint on his curious mind. In the 1980s, he worked in a village with no access to x-ray equipment – even simple x-rays – which meant he had to find creative ways to treat his patients without resorting to rapid scans. A dedicated young doctor, he later opened his own small radiology clinic in the community.
This experience formed the basis of a winning essay written by Riya, a junior at Staten Island Technical High School, in a competition whose theme this year was “Imagine a World Without Radiology”.
“These conversations unfolded before my eyes as if I really lived in a ‘world without radiology’,” she wrote. “I want to be part of this ecosystem by learning more about radiology so that I can contribute to its advancement. The combination of medicine and high-tech industries to fill the gaps in healthcare will put radiology everywhere on the map, even in remote villages – something my father’s cousin could never have dreamed of.
Riya participated in an annual community outreach program, “Radiology: Giving Back to New York City,” which invites high school students from across New York City to enter an essay contest. The program is sponsored by Memorial Sloan Kettering; New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE); and a partnership between City College of New York and MSK, funded by the National Institutes of Health.
The essay contest is just the start. Every year, all participants are invited to MSK for a learning day. But it’s more than just a field trip: through hands-on radiology technology activities, team building games, a career panel, and more, students gain an understanding of how the science they study in school can save lives.
On “Radiology Day,” as NYCDOE faculty and staff commonly call it, MSK executives announce the winners of the essay competition, including the students chosen for the grand prize: a paid internship of six weeks, supported by the NIH with the Radiology team: Giving back to New York City. Riya’s winning essay earned her one of ten spots for a summer team internship program with the Department of Radiology at MSK. At this year’s virtual event, Riya did a double take when her name flashed on the screen.
“I thought there was no way I could have won, so when they announced my name, I thought, ‘Did I see the screen? Said the 16-year-old. “I was delighted.”
“This is our reason for being”
Now in its 18th year, the program is the brainchild of Hedvig Hricak, Chairman of the Department of Radiology at MSK. In 2013, he received a proclamation from New York City.
“For me, it’s really important to give back to your company,” says Dr. Hricak. “And that’s what we are at MSK. I was very fortunate that from the start the Ministry of Education was keen to collaborate and promote science. The recognition we received from the city on our tenth year celebration speaks volumes.
Nearly 75% of the city’s one million public school students are economically disadvantaged, according to the NYCDOE. Of the more than 100 students who attend MSK each year, many come from diverse communities.
“Our public schools are a microcosm of the city,” says Sheila Fortunato, who has managed the program since 2014. “It’s important for us to make sure everyone has their place at the table. The future of cancer care depends on it.
For the past 11 years, John Davis, Assistant Principal of Staten Island Technical High School, has enthusiastically encouraged his students to enter the competition.
“When I put ‘Memorial Sloan Kettering’ in the subject line of the email, the students recognize that this is a special opportunity,” says Dr. Davis. “It’s cutting edge medicine, and we’re just extremely grateful to be involved in it. “
“Radiology Day” went virtual in 2020 and 2021, but the days were no less immersive. This year, for example, students watched and asked questions as MSK ultrasound supervisor Van Castor performed a live demo on Zoom. “We do our best to make the learning experience fun,” says Dr Hricak.
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An early start
When Riya begins her internship on July 7, she is particularly eager to study the intersections between technology and medicine, a subject she learned at this year’s event. She is also enthusiastic about the progress of the field in the service of underserved populations.
“We can now take ultrasound images with portable devices and send them to the emergency room for expert diagnosis,” she says. “The technology is there; we just need to make it more accessible.
Dr Davis is thrilled for Riya and grateful that all interested students can participate in the event.
“It’s one thing to read the facts in a textbook, but it’s another to talk with a doctor and spend a day in their world,” he says. “I think they’re more likely to realize that this could be something they want to do.”
The results of the program are tangible, says Dr Hricak. Participants went to top medical and nursing schools, in addition to other careers in health care. Dr. Davis recently met a former student who has just completed his residency. A former winner has returned to MSK over the past three years to help with the program.
“If you are never exposed to science, it is unlikely that you will choose it as a career,” says Dr Hricak. “The goal of our program is to give students this exposure, and we are so lucky to have the opportunity to do so.”
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