Young Epidemiology Scholar First-Place Winner Andreea Seicean, 2005

    • August 27, 2012

A bright, eager high school student, Andreea Seicean had her adolescent eyes firmly set on a career in law and public policy, where she was sure she could have a significant impact on society.

But clearly, something happened. Because today this very same Andreea Seicean has a master's degree in public health and is well on her way to completing a joint MD/PhD program at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.

"Basically what happened was the YES competition," says this 25-year-old health services researcher with a string of published articles already to her name.

YES: "The best and the brightest." YES—shorthand for Young Epidemiology Scholars—was a competitive scholarship program aimed at encouraging talented high school students to investigate public health issues and ultimately pursue a career in the public health field. Epidemiology—the study of the causes, distribution, and control of disease among populations—is the basic science of public health.

Initiated in 2003 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and managed by the College Board, YES ran for eight years, attracting the participation of nearly 5,000 high school juniors and seniors—"the best and the brightest from across the country," in the words of RWJF Senior Program Officer Pamela G. Russo, MD, MPH.

YES contestants identified a health problem, gathered data about the problem, and proposed a solution based on what the data showed. Survivors of the initial review process presented their projects in person to expert judges from the health field at a three-day Washington conference.

When the annual competitions ended in 2011—a casualty of the nation's economic recession and a change in RWJF's grantmaking strategy in the public health area—a total of 976 YES participants had collected some $3.7 million in college scholarships, ranging from $1,000 for semifinalists to up to $50,000 for each year's top two winners.

But while the program is itself now over, its impact is not—as the story of Andreea Seicean shows so well. Her experience is one example of how YES could and did make a difference in young people's academic and career choices. It's also evidence of what Russo says is the program's lasting legacy:

YES is definitely going to influence who's going to be in the lead in public health in the next 10 years.

Sleep: The spark. A native of Romania, Andreea was eight when she immigrated to the United States with her parents. Her transformation from prospective lawyer to public health researcher began in her junior year at Bay High School in suburban Cleveland.

Andreea enjoyed her AP Statistics course, she explains and "wanted to work on a project that allowed me to understand how statistics could be used in a real world setting." She began reading public health articles online, looking for project ideas One in particular caught her attention: a published study suggesting a connection between sleep and body weight among middle school-age children in Japan.

Andreea had noticed that nearly all of her friends were putting on pounds. She also notice that they frequently bragged about staying up into the wee morning hours. Were the two related? "I specifically became interested in how sleep is perceived—and the effects of sleep—in my own age group," she says.

Not finding any prior studies that looked at the effects of sleep on body weight in American youth, Andreea decided to fill that gap herself. To do so she knew she would need help from outside her school. She contacted Susan Redline, MD, MPH, then head of sleep research at Case Western Reserve University, who agreed to be her mentor. (Redline, who is now professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, had worked at Case Western with Andreea's mother, Sinziana Seicean, MD, PhD, MPH.)

Sleep versus BMI: The makings of a research project. With help from her mother, Redline, and Michikazu Sekine, MD, PhD, MSc, the lead researcher in the study of Japanees children, Andreea put together a questionnaire for her fellow students at Bay High.

She took some questions from Sekine's survey, some from other instruments, and some she composed herself. Together, they covered more than a hundred variables related to eating habits, exercise routines, and other lifestyle behaviors plus weight, height, and nightly sleep habits and sleep duration. The group received approval from the University Hospitals institutional review board to administer the survey.

Keep the cupcakes coming. The Bay High staff was supportive and, once satisfied that the responses would be anonymous, gave Andreea permission to administer the survey to a succession of classes. For students unsure of their weight and height, she set up scales in the hallway just outside the classroom.

Participation, she reports, was close to 100 percent, a tribute no doubt to an ingenuous incentive: each respondent got a cupcake baked by her pediatrician grandmother.

"I became famous throughout the school for having these amazing cupcakes," says Andreea. "Students were asking me when I was going to come to their classroom." Grandmother did a lot of baking. More than 500 kids ended up filling out the questionnaire.

Andreea came away with something at least equally as sweet: a finding that short sleep duration was significantly associated with being overweight. She and her collaborators reported the results in the journal Sleep and Breathing. ("Association between short sleeping hours and overweight in adolescents: results from a US Suburban High School survey." Sleep and Breathing, 11(4): 285–293, 2007. Abstract available online.)

YES: An endorsement. Andreea undertook the research, she explains, simply as a personal learning experience. It wasn't until after the project was well underway that she received a flyer about the YES competition in the mail. "I was like, 'Wow this is amazing. Somebody's actually encouraging this type of work.'"

Andreea entered her study in the YES contest for 2004–2005, her senior year, and was among 60 finalists invited to Washington to present their research. At the end of the three-day event, Andreea was one of two first-place winners and took home a $50,000 college scholarship. But the payoff was more than financial, she says. Her survey and YES participation "basically changed my entire career track."

Not only did I really enjoy the project itself and learn a lot from it, but seeing there was interest in this type of work was a huge stimulating factor to reconsider my career goals. It made me realize that epidemiology and public health research are really important.

Life after YES: Giving back. In the fall of 2005, Andreea entered Case Western, majoring in public health and earning a bachelor's degree in three years. Next came an MPH, also at Case Western, and entry into the university's MD/PhD joint program in health service research.

During her undergraduate and master's training she pursued research in a wide range of areas—from health disparities to paleopathology. In the MD/PhD program, she has narrowed her interests to focus on outcomes and comparative effectiveness research in neurosurgery.

(In 2012 she published a paper on comparative effectiveness of preoperative hemostasis screening and patient history for neurosurgery patients, for which she received the Medical Student Abstract Award from the American Association of Neurological Surgery. "Use and Utility of Preoperative Hemostatic Screening and Patient History in Adult Neurosurgical Patients." Journal of Neurosurgery, 116(5): 1097–1105, 2012. Abstract available online.)

As her career has taken off, Andreea has not forgotten the significant role that her mentors and family played in her success—and that not all young people have such a deep reservoir of support. In the 2010–2011 (and final) round of YES, she mentored an Ohio contestant who made it to the regional finalist level and won a $2,000 scholarship.

While saddened that YES has ended, Andreea says the mission of former participants is to continually share their knowledge with younger students:

There are only so many students that you can reach at one time. But if you make the effort to reach even a few students, they can later reach others, thus creating an expanding network of knowledge. This will allow the mission of the YES program to live on into the future.