“Would you like to open up the heart?”, PhD candidate Tessa de Vries asks three pupils in a lab on the seventh floor of Erasmus MC. On Petri dishes in front of them, there are three pig hearts on ice. De Vries picked up the hearts from an abattoir herself this morning.

The pupils try to cut open the heart themselves. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

One pupil reaches for the scissors. Holding the heart in place with one hand, she carefully cuts it open with the other. “Yuck, the texture takes some getting used to. It’s a little slippery”, she says. Jos van der Geest, head of the Junior Med School, just happens to be passing by that very moment. “Everybody doing OK?”, he asks. “Is the patient going to make it?” The pupil lets out a laugh: “Probably not.”

Getting high-school pupils excited

Jos van der Geest and Antoinette Maassen van den Brink are the head of JMS. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

The pupils are attending the Junior Med School programme, a pre-university programme for high-school students with an interest in medicine and medical-scientific research. “We organise this to get them interested in the Medicine degree programme. If you want to attract talented students, you’ll need to get them excited about Rotterdam”, Van der Geest claims. He heads up the Junior Med School together with Antoinette Maassen van den Brink.

The pupils, who are going to the fifth year of high school after the summer, attend the programme for a full year: ten days during the summer holidays, ten days throughout the year and a four-week internship at the end in the next summer.

Ook een feest voor docenten

Each year, more than two hundred pupils sign up for the 24 spaces available on the programme. Almost all participants end up studying Medicine in Rotterdam. “This means that there are twenty first-year students each year who already know the ropes of the programme and can share this knowledge with their fellow students”, Maassen van den Brink explains.

jms-foto-jos van der geest
Jos and Antoinette with the JMS pupils of this year. Image credit: Jos van der Geest

Van der Geest adds that lecturers enjoy the programme as well. “The pupils are enthusiastic and motivated, so they’re a joy to teach.” Maassen van den Brink confirms this. “I’m often amazed at how clever they are. This morning, we discussed medicines and they asked all sorts of questions about their safety and potential. They soak up knowledge like a sponge.”

On a campsite

Eyas stays with a lecturer during the programme. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

The pupils hail from all over the Netherlands. Eyas, from Tilburg, is staying with a lecturer for the duration of the programme. “My parents used to drive me to Rotterdam in their car and then had to wait the whole day for me to finish”, he recalls. After a while, Eyas asked a lecturer for advice about an affordable place to stay. “And he said I could use his garden house if I wanted.” So that is where he sleeps now.

Another student, Mare, is not from the local area either. She is from Eersel, a village near Eindhoven. “My family and I are staying on a campsite near the Oude Maas, so that I can attend this programme without having to travel too far”, she says. It takes her three-quarters of an hour by bike to get from the campsite to Erasmus MC.

Becoming friends

The high-school students describe the classes and laboratory demonstrations as impressive. “The visit to the dissecting room in particular made a huge impression on me”, Lianne says. “We were allowed to look at the bodies and touch the bones. That’s not a chance that secondary-school students usually get.”

Annika, Julia, Mare, Lianne and Shanya are becoming friends. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

Although they have long days studying, the students are having fun together too. “Last week, we all went out for pizza. That was great fun!”, recounts pupil Annika. “We didn’t know each other before, but you really get to know each other quite well in a short amount of time.” As for herself, she has bonded with four girls in her class. “It’s not like we consciously set out to become friends, but it’s easy if you have the same interests.”

While they share an interest in medicine, the friends are just as comfortable discussing less serious things, like the new Barbie film. “We talked about how it holds up a mirror to our society. We really enjoyed it!”, student Shanya enthuses.

Internship in the lab

Jason and Alex are doing internship. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

Alex and Jason are in the sixth year of high-school and doing an internship in the Pharmacology department to complete the programme. Their internship research is about the effect of the medicine colchicine on the cardiovascular system. “This device registers the contractions of the blood vessels”, Alex explains. “And over here, you can see the vessels’ level of contraction after administration of the medicine.” He points at a graph on a sheet of paper coming out of the device.

They can hand in the outcome of their research at school as a subject combination project. “Looking back, this programme has taught me so much”, Jason says. “I wanted to study at VU Amsterdam before, but now I find Erasmus MC fantastic!”