When summer comes, many teachers seek out a poolside lounge, a good paperback or one of many other relaxing diversions to help them recover from the grueling school year. But for one Newkirk educator, the end of the school year signals the beginning of her second job: serving as guidance counselor, den mother and drill sergeant for a dozen of the state’s finest high school and college science students.
For 35 years, Ginger Coleman has spent the fall, winter and spring teaching math and science at Newkirk High. And for the last nine years, she’s devoted her summers to mentoring another group of young people—the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation’s Sir Alexander Fleming Scholars.
Chosen from among more than 100 applicants statewide, the Fleming Scholars represent some of the state’s most promising minds. They come to OMRF to spend eight weeks working under the tutelage of the state’s leading scientists. But they are still teenagers who need guidance and, occasionally, a hug. And that’s where Coleman comes in.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that, although these students may be the best and brightest in the state, they’re still kids, and they have the same problems and challenges as other teenagers,” Coleman said. “They might deny it, but they need—and want—a responsible adult nearby, especially when lab experiments fail or something goes wrong at the apartments. I give them a safe place to vent or a shoulder to cry on, and they need that reassurance from time to time.
Coleman works to plan and coordinate each summer’s events, which include everything from scientific seminars to Red Hawks games and a pool party at the Governor’s Mansion. She lives alongside the students in their dorms at Oklahoma City University and ensures that they get to bed every night, get to OMRF on time every morning, don’t get too homesick, have lots of fun, and, of course, complete their individual research projects.
“Just thinking about Ginger’s days makes by tired,” said Steve Blair, OMRF’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement. “Here’s someone who deserves a break from her ‘real’ job, but instead she chooses to give even more of herself to education and young people. She is one of a kind, and we at OMRF are lucky to have her.”
For Coleman, the effort is worthwhile. “I really enjoy working with kids and mentoring them on a personal level,” she said. “The Fleming Program is less stressful and structured than a classroom, so it’s a very different outlet for me. And every year I have a hard time letting go of my ‘Flems’ when they leave.”
Two of Coleman’s former Newkirk High students, Kelsey Aupperle Smith and Rosalie Rodgers, have completed the Fleming Scholar Program. “Oklahoma has fantastic opportunities in the scientific and medical fields, and a lot of students, especially those from small towns, don’t know that,” she said. “I want gifted, motivated students to know that we have institutions like OMRF and programs like Fleming Scholars right here that are available to them. And most of all, I want them to be proud that they’re Oklahomans.”
About the Fleming Scholar Program:
OMRF’s Fleming Scholar Program has served as a model for science education programs nationwide since its creation in 1956. With the class of 2005, OMRF has now trained more that 400 Oklahoma students through this program. Two of OMRF’s faculty members, Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., and Rodger McEver, M.D., got their start as Fleming Scholars.
Chartered in 1946, OMRF (www.omrf.org) is a nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding and curing human disease. Its scientists focus on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease. OMRF is home to Oklahoma’s only member of the National Academy of Sciences.