It's not often teenagers expound on the merits of genetically modified foods, but at a recent chat at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, there they were, debating with vigor.
"These [genetically modified organisms] are actually capable of delivering vaccines," said Brandon Ong, a junior at Providence High School in Burbank. "Instead of going to the doctor's office or somewhere like Vons to get a flu shot, I could eat a banana and get it right away."
But there are risks involved with genetically modified foods, his classmates countered, including allergens. And consumers in many countries, including the United States, don't even know what they are eating.
"Some people don't want GMOs in their bodies at all, and it is their choice," said Sutasana Chinotakul, 16.
The discussion ended inconclusively, but what was clear is that the students, all of them enrolled in Providence High School's medical program, had a better grasp of the subject matter than the average adult. And critical thinking is one of the top priorities of the program, said Director Dr. Arjan Harjani.
"It is not just the academic part," Harjani said. "It is developing them holistically — having them learn skills of communication, skills of critical thinking, skills of decision making, stuff that they will really use in any aspect of life."
Started in 1989, the program is competitive — students have to apply, and availability is limited to 25 spots per grade level. There are currently 94 Providence students enrolled. The medical program emphasizes the sciences and exposes students to myriad professional opportunities in the medical field.
The school maintains close ties with Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, which is next door. But students visit other Southland hospitals, including Shriners Hospital for Children and Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.
All students must maintain a 3.0 grade-point average. Freshmen and sophomores are required to complete 120 hours of medical-related volunteer hours, while juniors and seniors must complete 80 hours.
Graduates of the Providence High School medical program now work as nurses, dentists, psychologists, physical therapists, hospital administrators and doctors, Harjani said.
Students said the program provides them with an advantage as they look toward the future. They get to see the many skills that are in demand, dispelling the idea that the only option is becoming a physician.
"I hope it will get me a jumpstart in a career, broaden my options in my future," said Anthony Ramon Galvan, 16. "I have seen so many departments. I have seen nursing, ICU, telemetry, all these different careers."
Working in hospitals familiarizes students with the realities of the environment, said Therese Vesagas, 17.
Her most memorable experience in the program was a trip to a hospital's gross room, where doctors store amputated limbs and other discarded pieces of anatomy.
"It helps the people in the medical program know if they do want to do what they plan on doing," Therese said.
Students are also forced to learn time management skills, said Ana Solis, 17, because they are juggling requirements of the program along with a full class schedule, and student government activities and sports. But those enrolled in the medical program get to see things that an average 16-year-old science student doesn't get to see.
"One day when I was working at the hospital one of the patients went down to the ER, so I got to bring her stuff down, and I got to see how the doctors dealt with someone who was going into cardiac arrest," Ana said. "That was very interesting."