Baltimore nonprofit partners with INBT to sponsor ‘at-risk’ summer scholars

A stable home and a good education are keys to success that many children take for granted. Two Johns Hopkins faculty members have teamed up with a local nonprofit to make sure two academically capable but life-challenged teens from Baltimore can have these same opportunities. Initiated by Doug Robinson, associate professor of cell biology in the School of Medicine and faculty affiliate of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT), two young men from Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore participated in summer internships in Johns Hopkins laboratories. INBT financially supported the Boys Hope scholars with stipends.

Matthew Green-Hill and Deepak Kalra working in the Montell Lab (Mary Spiro/INBT)

Matthew Green-Hill and Deepak Kalra working in the Montell Lab (Mary Spiro/INBT)

“The main goal was to immerse them in a scientific lifestyle and culture. Their success was measured in terms of each student’s individual progress,” Robinson says. Robinson hosted scholar Donté Jones; Craig Montell, professor of biological chemistry in the School of Medicine, opened up his lab to Matthew Green-Hill. Jones, a sophomore and Green-Hill, a junior, both attend Archbishop Curley High School.

Unlike other programs that try to help children in troubled circumstances by placing them in court-ordered foster homes, students voluntarily apply to Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore to have access to the services it provides, such as a stable home, tutoring, and counseling. Scholars may live together in an adult-supervised home in Baltimore city, but they don’t have to, says the organization’s executive director Chuck Roth.

Scholars attend local private schools, meet with tutors if they need to, earn a weekly allowance for personal expenses, and receive other types of emotional and financial support as needed. The organization has no legal guardianship of the children, Roth adds. As long as their school responsibilities are met, scholars may visit with their families whenever they wish. Roth emphasizes that scholars don’t have records of misbehavior or crime. “These are kids with good potential and who are motivated. They recognize education as a way out of their circumstances,” he says.

Students typically learn about Boys Hope Girls Hope through their school counselors, teachers, relatives, and even their peers. “One of my best friends got into the program, and I didn’t see him for a week. But then he came back and told me about it,” explains Green-Hill. “I literally was one of those kids who knocked on the door of the Boys Hope house and asked to be accepted. I want to be the first person in my family to go to college,” he adds.

At first Green-Hill joined Boys Hope as a non-residential participant, but his home-life was still unsettled. Between middle school and high school, Green-Hill attended seven different schools and moved between several eastern cities. Once his family settled more permanently in Baltimore, he was able to re-apply and move into the supervised Boys Hope home full-time.

Jones had been truant from school for more than two years before he reached the 7th grade and, by his own account, was headed for a “life on the streets.”

Donte Jones and Cathy Kabacoff in Robinson Lab. (Mary Spiro/INBT)

Donte Jones and Cathy Kabacoff in Robinson Lab. (Mary Spiro/INBT)

“It wasn’t that I didn’t like school,” Jones says, “It was just that no one made me go.” After Jones went to live with his aunt, all that changed. She encouraged him to apply to Boys Hope because she saw his academic potential.

Over the summer, Green-Hill was mentored by doctoral student Deepak Kalra in Montell’s biological chemistry lab at the School of Medicine. Kalra involved Green-Hill in as many components of his research as possible and taught him several molecular biology techniques.

“I found Matt to be very sharp and hard working,” Kalra says. “He kept a good record in his lab notebook. Sometimes when he would come to me with a question, I would be intentionally hard and tell him, ‘Go back and look it up in your notebook!’ After a few moments, he would figure it out.” Undaunted by Kalra’s “tough” mentoring, Green-Hill even came in on the weekends to help in the lab.

“At first I thought I wanted to work with athletes and become an orthopedic surgeon,” says Green-Hill, “but after a summer working in the lab, I also might want to go into research so that I can discover ways to help people heal faster.”

Jones also has his heart set on medicine but intends to study nursing when he graduates from high school. Working with research technician Cathy Kabacoff in the Robinson lab, Jones practiced basic lab skills, such as conducting a restriction enzyme digest and measuring protein concentrations. Because Jones had missed several years worth of school, Kabacoff, a former middle school teacher, also helped him improve his writing and mathematics skills. He developed a study plan to research answers to questions of interest to him, such as “What is the Big Bang Theory?” and “What is DNA?”

“For the last two years I’ve been thinking that I wanted to become a nurse, but I also like the science part; I wouldn’t mind working in a lab,” Jones says. “I am taking biology this school year and think I will be better prepared because of all that we worked on.”

Along with their lab work, Robinson and Montell required that the scholars participate in the weekly journal club meetings of the Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP).  PREP, a minority outreach program that targets recently graduated minority students with the goal of helping them hone their skills in preparation for application to PhD programs, provides a good source of young role models.

Montell says it was exciting to see how each scholar progressed. “They arrived with different skill sets and with different interests so their experiences have not been the same. But the earlier that you can participate in someone’s career, the more impact you can have. Due to our location in east Baltimore, we have a responsibility to give back to the community and this is one way we can do that,” Montell says.

Both scholars agree their experiences were positive.

“I know that you have to have teamwork in sports to be successful, but I didn’t know that you have to have teamwork in academics to be successful. This is why I like working with this lab,” Jones wrote in a summary report at the conclusion of his internship.

In his summary, Green-Hill wrote, “…I am happy to have been exposed to this field of medicine…it has made an impact on my thoughts of my future career and has also given me the experience that I will need to have for my college laboratory sciences.”

Story by Mary Spiro

For more information:

Doug Robinson’s Lab

Craig Montell’s Lab

Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore

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