By Daniel Langhorne
Capistrano Unified School District students were recognized by a panel of experts Tuesday in a countywide competition showcasing their creative problem-solving in medical innovation, research, and entrepreneurship.
This is the third year the College and Career Advantage (CCA) program has been involved in the contest. Over a nine-week course offered as a partnership between local ROPs, students are asked to develop a concept for a needed medical device and related business and marketing plans. The final event is the contest.
University Lab Partners, a medical technology business incubator, hosted about 100 students and teachers at its UCI Research Park building for a “Shark Tank” style competition. Students pre-recorded presentations of their medical devices and fielded questions in person from five experts.
Among the panelists were industry experts Nadine Afari, research programs manager for CHOC; immunologist Andrea Loewendorf; and University Lab Partners site director Linda McCarthy. Patent attorneys Jiaxiao Zhang and Ketan Vakil also joined in questioning students.
Afari encouraged students to look at healthcare careers as they would an interdisciplinary sport, requiring a background in both science and the business sense that makes it possible.
“Having you guys study pediatrics and invest in this space is just fantastic. There are tons of opportunities. I was chatting with one of the teachers and you guys can create your own careers now because you know that it’s possible,” she said.
CommuniCare, a student-designed concept for a messaging system designed to streamline updates between patients, their families, and healthcare providers, was named as the judges’ top pick among seven teams compiled from Capistrano Unified School District and Laguna Beach High School.
“These aren’t your average high school students. They’re seeking the most out of the experience,” CCA instructor Sean Higgs said.
Students enroll in the CCA program as a virtual class in addition to their full course load at their respective high schools. They’d never met their teachers in person before Tuesday’s event, said Jacques Andre, a CCA instructor and Engineering/Robotics teacher at San Clemente High School.
One of the biggest learning opportunities CCA students encounter is working with a team of peers who are usually strangers and may not even attend the same high school, Andre said.
“I’m very proud of them,” Higgs said. “They put so much work into it and I like when the experts ask them questions about the real-life part of it.”
The top CCA team consisted of Gabriela Cruz-Hernadez, Rozina Esfehani, Caitlyn Koyabu, Timothy Lasater, Matthew Lee, and Sahba Maleki.
Maleki, a junior, has been interested in becoming an optometrist from a young age. She and her teammates had doubts about their chances before their presentation to the judges, she said.
“It makes me really happy because there are a lot of problems I had never thought of,” Maleki said.
In addition to pursuing a pre-medicine track, Maleki said she also wants to minor in business to sharpen the organizational and team management skills she’s flexed in the CCA program.
Freshman Gabriela Cruz-Hernadez was motivated to become a physician’s assistant focusing on pediatrics after watching her family endure some heartache while trying to access their healthcare providers.
“I started having a lot of younger siblings and cousins. I got to see what my family went through as parents and want them to have a better experience,” Cruz-Hernadez said.