“Devastated, dismayed, and surprised” is how
Kevin Xu described his reaction and that of fellow alumni upon
hearing the news about the termination of the much praised and
highly valued Young Epidemiology Scholars (YES) program, a college
scholarship competition in epidemiology for high school students.
The program was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)
and administered by the College Board.
The program was established in 2003 and eight
competitions were held over the life of the program. During this
time, approximately 5,000 students from all 50 states participated
in the program. YES awarded $3.7 million in scholarships to 976
students. The top winners received awards ranging from 15K to 50K.
A special weekend event was held in early June 2012
to mark the end of the YES program and to give some of the
scholars an opportunity to expand their network and reconnect on
the importance of epidemiology and public health, according to
Diane Tsukamaki, the Director of National Recognition and
Scholarship Programs at the College Board. A total of 84 former
high school students and over 20 former scholarship judges and
professionals were on hand for the special event.
The event opened with a social reception on Friday
evening and then the day on Saturday was devoted to a panel
discussion on Improving Conditions for Health—From Research To
Practice, discussion groups on six different topics ranging from
infectious diseases to public policy, a keynote address by Matt
Myers President of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (see
separate article, this issue), and a group discussion on possible
future activities related to the YES experience.
According to Tsukamaki, the intent of the event was
not to take stock of all the accomplishments of the YES program.
She noted that asking how many students become or plan to become
epidemiologists is too narrow a way of defining the impact of the
program. Instead, she claimed that the impact had been made
because many students learned skills for critical thinking and
have learned to think about health at a population level. “Not
everyone needs to be a ‘card-carrying’ epidemiologist for the
program to have achieved impact,” according to Tsukamaki.
The major indirect benefits of the program were
perhaps best captured by the sentiments of Camille Pfister,
a student in the 2010-2011 competition who stated “The best part
of the YES competition was its ability to make each participant
feel like they can truly make a difference in the world through
public health.” This sentiment was echoed by Kevin Xu saying “the
YES program gave alumni ‘agency’ to act on their interest in
public health.” (See page 8 for additional comments).
Xu points out that because of the College Board’s
involvement, essentially every college bound high school graduate
in the country over the past 8 years was told about epidemiology.
Prior to this time, few high school students recognized,
understood or appreciated epidemiology, according to Xu. He
credits the YES program as one of the important contributors to
the current boom in interest in epidemiology, public health, and
global health among high school and college students.
He told the Epi Monitor that it is now common for
students on spring break to go overseas to do field work on these
topics, and that these topics, and they take the “gold medal” for
student interest groups on campus today. He attributed this
passion to an increasing sense of caring about social justice
among students and said public health/epidemiology is an
When asked why a successful program had been
terminated, Tsukamaki told the Epi Monitor that the recent
economic downturn had caused the RWJF to reassess a lot of
programs. Reportedly, the RWJF liked the program but did not have
the resources to fully fund it in the future. Other partners who
might have participated in extending the funding chose not to do
so. The YES program was not the only one cut by RWJF, according to
While no organization has stepped up to continue
the program, grassroots efforts by alumni of the program are being
made to support epidemiology and public health related activities
for high school and college level students, according to Tsukamaki.
This was confirmed by Kevin Xu who said a committee of 12-15 YES
alumni has taken on the responsibility for continuing the YES
legacy in a grassroots form. The group is still conceptualizing
how it will meet this challenge, but early ideas are to create a
science journal designed to publish the contributions of high
school students in this topic area including both scientific
papers and essays which reflect the perspectives and
understandings of the high school students about public health.
A special commemorative magazine on the YES program
was published in connection with the event in early June. Readers
can access this magazine at
More information about the YES program can be found