When Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach, was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse, few could foresee that he was about to hurt thousands of students, future physicians and aspiring scientists across the nation.
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. In the US, most students are not exposed to professional settings, like medical clinics or scientific research laboratories, until they are sent off to college at the age of 18 years or older. College students quickly become mired in student debt, which makes accumulating more debt over the course of decades worth of training –sometimes till one’s mid-30s — seem 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-increasing government health care spending.
The prolonged physician education timeline, which is likely in part to blame for the impending shortage, is a product of an outdated medical education system (spanning back to the Flexner report, which found that contemporary medical students were severely unprepared) and is unlikely to change anytime soon. Even small educational opportunities that would allow for exposure to said professions before college, however, would mean students graduating with more years of experience, more opportunity and passion for scientific innovation and more determination to pursue fast-track programs. 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, which can only be had in a professional setting, are better made earlier rather than later in life. Advancement in science and medicine has bred greater specialization and longer training, and we can no longer afford students losing years of life 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 federal, state and local regulations and legal precedents.
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 and diverse public school students into university labs and clinical settings. Rather bizarrely, imprisoned football coach Jerry Sandusky has proven a major obstacle.
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 any workers, especially those at universities, who have any contact with minors. As a Penn State student, I have seen firsthand the damage wrought by this controversy, as well as the disproportionate response (one largely carried out more for show than substance). In accordance with a government mandate, millions of dollars have been spent on fingerprinting and background checks for anyone, from a researcher to a janitor, 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 the age of 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 for students to observe, practice and appreciate without a laboratory, a clinic and a mentor.
It is natural to respond to such heinous crimes viscerally and feel driven to action. As a Penn State student, I have witnessed the suffering and fallout caused by this despicable human being looking to exploit powerless victims. I understand the fear that parents must feel when sending their children off to distant, new 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, even worse, have no idea why they are studying science or medicine in the first place. I am grateful to my high school and outstanding individuals like Dr. Waldeck for finding every possible path to outmaneuver draconian restrictions and to get students into professional settings. I am ashamed, though, 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.