Lauren Mundy, a Glenelg High School senior, spends most of her afternoons going on rounds with Dr. Fred Lewis, a Clarksville-based equine veterinarian. They see three to four horses on a typical day, and Mundy applies bandages, checks teeth and confers with Lewis on possible courses of action.
Lewis, in turn, is helping Mundy with a research paper on equine metabolic syndrome, a condition that causes his four-legged patients to grow unaccountably overweight.
The arrangement, which lets Mundy earn school credit and explore a career path while giving Lewis a valuable helper, is part of a Gifted and Talented Intern/Mentor Program offered at all Howard County high schools. While many of the students are enrolled in other G/T courses, that is not a requirement for the intern/mentor program.
Students are paired with a wide range of mentors, including fashion designers, doctors, judges and educators. And they are expected to do much more than file papers and fetch coffee. Besides doing real work in the field, the students must complete an original paper or project related to the subject.
The project could involve calculating the thickness of the crust of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, like Shannon Jones, a Glenelg High School senior mentoring at the Civilian Space Department of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.
Or it could mean helping doctors at the Georgetown University Medical Center find new ways to treat breast cancer, as Maya Aduba, a senior at Wilde Lake High School, is doing.
The college-level course is overseen by each high school's G/T resource teacher. Students apply to the program and are accepted only if they propose an acceptable project, are deemed capable of handling the challenge and can be matched with an appropriate mentor.
"The key is go find a student who is passionate enough and mature enough to do the level of research," said Charles Ashcraft, the adviser at Glenelg High.
Rena Bezilla, the adviser at Wilde Lake High, estimated that she accepts half the students who apply. This year, about 50 students are in her school's mentor program, she said.
The program requires students to spend at least five hours a week at the mentor site, though many students log more hours than that.
Aduba is one of the few interns who found their own mentor -- Dr. Milton Brown, who attends her church. Usually, the adviser finds the mentors, and that can be challenging.
"I work all summer to find mentors," Bezilla said.
The advisers make sure the research is on track and help students publish the final work, if that is appropriate.
"A big part of my job is making sure they know what a college-level paper looks like," Ashcraft said.
He said the projects help students get into their top-choice colleges, because admissions officers can see that the students already are meeting college standards.
Matt Hoyt, 17, a senior at Glenelg, says he has been accepted to Georgetown University in part because of the work he has done with Assistant State's Attorney Mary Murphy. Hoyt is writing his paper on Maryland sentencing laws for juvenile violent crime.
Not all projects are in the form of research papers. Bridgett Ko, 17, a Glenelg junior, designed seven prom dresses for her project. She's working with mentor Victor Rossi, a renowned designer, who has a home in Baltimore County.
"Designing the dresses takes hours," said Ko. "A lot of people underestimate the work."
But creating dresses with her own label sewn inside is sure to give her an advantage, she said.
"Everybody's talented who is applying to art school, but being able to design seven dresses under my own name gives me a head start," Ko said.
Another student working in a legal setting is Sean Collins, a Wilde Lake senior who is mentoring with county Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure and doing his research project on jury dynamics.
Collins originally thought he would go into politics.
But "now that I've been in the courtroom, it's really sucked me in," he said. "This program has had a huge impact on me because now I'm looking at what will get me into a good law school."
He recently witnessed the sentencing of Brandon T. Morris, who received life in prison for killing a correctional officer in Hagerstown.
"That's something I really never could have gotten in the classroom," Collins said.
Many students in the mentorship program have taken a class called Independent Research, which requires an in-depth research paper on a topic of interest. Mentors are available to give advice or provide research materials, but students don't work off-site.
At Glenelg, 36 students, mostly seniors, are in the internship program, and 24 are doing independent research, Ashcraft said.
Mentoring, of course, is not new, but the county's program has grown increasingly sophisticated over the years.
Lewis, the veterinarian, said he has been mentoring students for more than 50 years, since he graduated from veterinary school in 1953 and began practicing in Howard County. But the job description has changed radically over that time period.
Before the school system had a formal mentoring program, students interested in a veterinary career would ask to ride along with him on weekends or after school, he said.
Now, students can make rounds with him during school hours and earn credit for their time. And the required research project "makes them delve into something that they've got an interest in," Lewis said.
Lewis said he likes the mentoring program so much that he accepts one or two interns each year.
"I miss them when they're not with me," he said. "Rather than be a drag, or a chore, they're really a big help."