More Than a Field Trip: MSK Radiologists Mentor High School Students

Riya Agrawal

At "Radiology Day" at Memorial Sloan Kettering, New York City high school students like Riya Agrawal gain an understanding of how the science they study in school translates to saving lives.

As she visited her grandmother in a small town not far from the Himalayan foothills, high school junior Riya Agrawal had a revelation about the importance of radiology.

Riya had traveled with her parents to see her extended family and met her father’s cousin, a radiologist. His story left an imprint on her curious mind. In the 1980s, he worked in a village without access to radiology equipment — even simple x-rays — which meant he had to find creative ways to treat his patients without the use of quick scans. A dedicated young doctor, he later opened his own small radiology clinic in the community.

That 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.”

Kids using a device to scan a chicken breast

Practicing a scan at “Radiology Day” in 2019

“Those conversations played out in front of my eyes as if I were actually living in a ‘world without radiology,’” she wrote. “I want to be part of this ecosystem by learning more about radiology so I can contribute to its advancement. The combination of medicine and high-tech industries to tackle 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 juniors from across New York City to enter an essay competition. The program is sponsored by Memorial Sloan Kettering; the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE); and a partnership between the City College of New York and MSK, funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

The essay contest is just the beginning. Each year, all entrants are invited to MSK for a day of learning. But it’s far more than just a field trip: Through hands-on activities in radiology technology, team-building games, a career panel, and more, students gain an understanding of how the science they study in school translates to saving lives.

At “Radiology Day,” as the teachers and the team at the NYCDOE commonly refer to it, MSK leaders announce the winners of the essay contest, including the students chosen for the big prize: a six-week, NIH-supported paid internship with the Radiology: Giving Back to New York City team. Riya’s winning essay earned her one of ten slots for a summer team-internship program with MSK’s Department of Radiology. At this year’s virtual event, Riya did a double take when her name flashed upon 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 clearly?’ says the 16-year-old. “I was elated.” 

‘That’s What We’re All About’

Now in its 18th year, the program is the brainchild of Hedvig Hricak, Chair of the Department of Radiology at MSK. In 2013, it was awarded a proclamation by the City of New York.

“To me, it is really important to give back to one’s society,” Dr. Hricak says. “And that’s what we’re all about at MSK. I was very lucky that from the very beginning, the Department of Education was eager to collaborate and promote science. The recognition we received from the city when celebrating our tenth year says it all.”

Hedvig Hricak

Hedvig Hricak

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 descend upon MSK every year, many are 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 to us to make sure everyone has a seat at the table. The future of cancer care depends on it.”

For the past 11 years, John Davis, an assistant principal from Staten Island Technical High School, has enthusiastically encouraged his students to enter the contest.

“When I put ‘Memorial Sloan Kettering’ in the subject of the email, the students recognize that this is a special opportunity,” Dr. Davis says. “It’s cutting-edge medicine, and we’re just extremely grateful to be involved.”

“Radiology Day” went virtual in 2020 and 2021, but the days weren’t any less immersive. This year, for example, students watched and asked questions as MSK ultrasound supervisor Van Castor performed a live demonstration on Zoom. “We do our best to make the learning experience fun,” Dr. Hricak says.

An Early Start

When Riya begins her internship on July 7, she’s especially eager to study the intersections between technology and medicine, a topic she learned about at this year’s event. She’s also excited about the field’s advancements in serving underserved populations.

Hand pointing at a scan

“We can now take ultrasound pictures with handheld devices and send them to emergency rooms 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 get to take part 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 might be something they want to do.”

The results of the program are tangible, Dr. Hricak says. Attendees have gone on to top medical and nursing schools, in addition to other careers in healthcare. Dr. Davis recently caught up with a former student attendee who just finished their residency. A previous winner has returned to MSK for the past three years to assist with the program.

“If you are never exposed to science, it is unlikely you will choose it as a career,” Dr. Hricak says. “The goal of our program is to give students that exposure, and we are so lucky to have an opportunity to do that.”