Senior Justin Smith’s interest in medicine started in adolescence.
A native of Sumner, Illinois, Smith says science had long been his strong subject in grade school, but it took on new meaning when as a youth he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. His academic interests soon dovetailed with a new interest in taking care of patients from rural communities.
Smith, 22, volunteered in an emergency room at age 16 and saw first-hand how skilled physicians could serve a community.
"It opened my eyes to the fact that these physicians have a unique role,” says Smith. "They have the ability to favorably impact and ultimately save lives. I am from a very rural community and there aren’t a lot of healthcare resources. Someday I would love to be able to go back there help these people I grew up with and who really shaped me into who I am.”
He is one of five students who will graduate during the university’s commencement Saturday, April 28, with an undergraduate degree in the College of Medicine’s medical sciences program. Smith, who will take his degree with Latin Honors, will marry his hometown high school sweetheart this summer before entering medical school at UC in the fall.
Smith and his classmates, Austin Songer, Anna Hopkins, John Bonamer and Bhargav Vemuri are a bit of a novelty—the first group of students in recent years to get a bachelor’s degree in the College of Medicine, a traditional granter of advanced degrees. The medical sciences undergraduate program began accepting majors in the fall of 2015, with an aim to train students for medical school or to obtain advanced degrees in the sciences. Students are also ready for possible careers in allied health sciences, dentistry or in medical laboratories. The average incoming ACT for this group of graduating seniors was 33.75 while the average high school grade point average was 3.91.
Songer is receiving Latin Honors and starting as a UC medical student in the fall. He along with Smith were admitted to UC through the Connections Dual Admissions Program, which allows high school seniors to apply to undergraduate (BS) and graduate (MD) programs in the College of Medicine simultaneously. Hopkins will take a year off studying, but hopes to then enter optometry school, while Vemuri has plans for a master’s in public health before deciding whether to attend medical school or pursue a PhD. Bonamer, who will graduate with Latin Honors, wants to attend medical school, but plans to work a year in a research lab while applying.
"Medical Sciences is a great program,” says Hopkins, a 22-year-old Cincinnati resident, who started at the University of Dayton and then transferred to UC and into the medical sciences program as a sophomore. "You are really right up in the action and can see what medical school is like. You have access to all the hospitals nearby and that’s been a big factor for me. I found when I was at Dayton I had some trouble getting involved in volunteering and shadowing and I think within a week of being a student at UC I had experiences for both of those things set up.”
Medical sciences majors take the same foundational courses as many students preparing for medical school with a heavy dose of organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, statistics and calculus.
But in their junior and senior years, medical sciences majors get more of the hard sciences—pharmacology, molecular genetics, biochemistry, histology and microbiology, biomedical statistics and physiology, to name a few, all taught by faculty who also teach UC medical and graduate students. They also learn the ‘soft skills’ of medicine and dive into biomedical ethics, and take classes with titles such as: Becoming a Master Physician and Life in Medicine, both taught by well-respected faculty in the College of Medicine.
Mentorship, Research and Service Learning Help Forge Close Bond
Each medical sciences major has a mentor who is either an MD/clinician or PhD/researcher, along with a medical student and resident. They spend time in laboratories in the college or Cincinnati Children’s, engage in service-learning projects, and shadow physicians at UC, Children’s or other health systems in Cincinnati.
"I like the exposure to faculty in the College of Medicine,” says Songer. "We have had professors that teach the medical students and the topics are much more specific. They work too with mentoring. We have a medical school student mentor and a resident mentor. It’s been a holistic approach.”
Bonamer likes the close knit community he developed with his colleagues. His hope is that the bonds remain for future classes as the program grows.
"There were only five students in my graduating class and that was pretty special,” says Bonamer. "You go into undergrad courses expecting to have more than 100 students per class, but I had many classes of five or six people which allowed me to really get to know them. It’s pretty special to have a close knit community that really understands everything you are going through.”
Smith, a Cincinnatus Scholar, spent two years in the laboratory of Charles Caldwell, PhD, professor of surgery, researching sepsis and its role in burn injuries, while Songer, 22, of DuBois, Pennsylvania, worked with a graduate student of Thomas Thompson, PhD, professor of molecular genetics, to study myostatin and its role in muscle wasting diseases.
Bonamer, 22, of Broadview Heights, Ohio, studied a critical transport protein involved in iron homeostasis, Ferroportin, and disease associated with its mutation in the laboratory of Bryan Mackenzie , PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and system physiology beginning in his junior year.
Hopkins for the past two years has completed a service-learning project at Cincinnati Children’s School-based Health Center at Hughes STEM School, working to increase accessibility to healthcare for underserved populations.
Vemuri, a 21-year-old National Merit Scholar from Cincinnati, used bioinformatics to review potential treatments for glioblastoma in the lab of Anil Jegga, DVM, a Cincinnati Children’s researcher and UC associate professor of pediatrics.
"It’s very different from what most people would think of lab work because it is all computer-based,” says Vemuri. "We are looking at lab data from a bigger picture. The question is, ‘Can discover new potential drugs or therapeutics for Glioblastoma or brain cancer?’ We aren’t doing lab work where we are physically looking at animals or a test tube, but the data is still very powerful.”
Anil Menon, PhD, director of the medical sciences program and professor of molecular genetics in the College of Medicine, says the program is very much based on "hands on” experiences in clinical research and service learning and in developing long-term mentoring relationships.
"What we do is we provide them a chance to experience a mini-career in medicine and related healthcare disciplines within the medical school,” says Menon. "This is an aspect of curriculum design called "rapid prototyping” of careers. For example, a student interested in a career in medicine works closely with a medical student mentor, a resident mentor and a faculty mentor. They shadow physicians, work in research laboratories, and develop humanitarian service learning projects.
"Based on these experiences, students are empowered to make evidence-based choices,” says Menon. "Some choose to go on to medical school, some choose PhD doctoral programs and some choose graduate school in public health. "When they make a decision after four years whether to go into medical school or not, it is a decision based on evidence and experience rather than ‘my uncle, a doctor, told me to go into medical school’,” says Menon.
This is particularly important because data from the American Medical Association shows that 30 percent of physicians reported dissatisfaction with their jobs, explains Menon. A concern often voiced by the physicians was a wish that they had known what medical school was like before they entered and acquired sizable amounts of student loans and debt. The average debt after medical school is reportedly $190,000 for a borrower, according to Student Debt Relief.
Menon says he wants his Medical Sciences students, whom he describes as having both good minds and good hearts and dubbed ‘the Magnificent Five’ to find careers of promise, purpose and service.
"Our commitment to our students is not just for their four years of college, but we want to give them the skills and inspiration that will last them and be a resource or wellspring that can nourish them their entire life,” says Menon.
The Medical Sciences program is a unique collaboration between students, faculty and staff that is highly customized to the interest of students. It exists due to partnerships across East and West campuses at the University of Cincinnati.
Faculty and staff supporting this program include: Rachel Shah, David Askew, PhD, Benjamin Kinnear, MD, Cindy Bachurski, PhD, Iain Cartwright, PhD, Edmund Choi, PhD, Kevin Haworth, PhD, Terry Kirley, PhD, Michael Lieberman, PhD, Bryan Mackenzie, PhD, David Wieczorek, Zalfa Abdel-Malek, PhD, Holly Bante, PhD, Richard Becker, MD, Philip Diller, MD, Nancy Elder, MD, Bruce Giffin, PhD, David Gimbel, MD, Stephan Glasser, PhD, Eric Gruenstein, PhD, Rafeeq Habeeb, PhD, Onur Kanisicak, PhD, Rhett Kovall, PhD, Fran Larkin, DJ Lowrie, PhD, William Miller, PhD, John Monaco, PhD, Roger Worrell, PhD, Carolyn Price, PhD, Paul Rosevear, PhD, Jack Rubinstein, MD, Kiranpal Sangha, PharmaD, Cate Sherron, PhD, Andrew Thompson, PhD, Thomas Thompson, PhD, Alison Weiss, PhD, Aurora Bennett, MD, Abbigail Tissot, PhD, Mia Mallory, MD, Emily Rawers, Alana Calhoun, Andrew Filak, MD, Melanie Cushion, PhD, William Ball, MD, Sandra Degen, PhD, Cate Sherron, PhD and Peter Stambrook, PhD.