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Medical students teach children to be 'sun smart'

Medical students teach children to be 'sun smart'

Medical students in Upstate Medical University’s Dermatology Interest Group are sharing their “sun smart” message with 450 elementary school pupils this month.

“We are all extremely excited at the opportunity to raise awareness of the dangers of skin cancer and the importance of proper sun protection starting at an early age,” said group president Nathalie Morales, a first-year medical student. “Our goal is to make the kids understand that what they do now will affect them in the future.”

“Skin cancer--including melanoma, the most aggressive form--is on the rise in younger populations,” Morales said.

The students’ Sun Smart Syracuse project started with the Salt City Road Warriors, a group of local runners who raise money for the Upstate Foundation. The foundation manages hundreds of funds that support Upstate Medical University’s mission.

The Road Warriors’ Maureen Clark decided to focus the club’s fundraising this year on raising awareness about the dangers of skin cancer. She contacted dermatologist Ramsay Farah, MD, who suggested the idea to fourth-year medical students Matthew Helm and Daniel Grove, and to Morales in the Class of 2019.

Upstate students Amanda Gemmiti and Dulce Barrios have joined the project and were among the presenters last week at Blessed Sacrament School, the Syracuse Hebrew Day School and Holy Cross School in DeWitt.

The medical students will give 20-minute PowerPoint presentations to multiple classes in kindergarten-through-6th grade. They’ll hand out sunscreen (donated by Wegmans and Australian Gold), UV detection bracelets and a sunscreen application-tracking calendar; they’ll also conduct an initial survey and a followup survey next month.

In age-appropriate presentations, the students will cover the ABCs of sun protection and point out the dangerous societal pressures that encourage tanning, either in the sun or in tanning beds -- an important issue for older students as they prepare for prom season and summer vacation. “If they understand this now, they’ll learn good habits,” Morales said.

Before coming to Upstate for medical school, Morales worked for two years as a surgical medical assistant and clinical research coordinator for a Mohs surgeon and encountered a lot of patients with skin cancer. Mohs surgery is an advanced technique and is considered the gold standard in skin cancer surgery, Morales said.

That experience drew her to dermatology, as she did her graduate work at Rutgers University, where she earned a master’s degree in biomedical sciences with a thesis on wound healing and repair. This summer she has a fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she’ll work with other fellows on a project studying the relationship between merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer, and squamous cell carcinoma.

Morales said the Upstate Dermatology Interest Group is interested in giving presentations to other schools in the community. The group also plans to hold a SPOTme skin cancer screening on the Upstate campus in September, she said.

Caption: Medical students on the executive board of Upstate’s Dermatology Interest Group, from left: Peter Thai, Dulce Barrios, Nathalie Morales, Amanda Gemmiti and Tai Truong.

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