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Sonia Grutzius working with Ryan Mehl in the lab.

Oregon's top pre-med program meets the growing demand for doctors

By Srila Nayak

Pre-med students in the College of Science can engage in research projects in labs across Oregon State University.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a surging interest in science and medicine, attracting a new generation of students to a career in medicine. Widely dubbed the “Fauci Effect,” after Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the unprecedented impact of the pandemic and Fauci’s inspiring leadership are driving a record number of applicants to medical school.

Enrollment in Oregon State's pre-med program has also remained high despite the pandemic, with numbers averaging 90-100 pre-med students annually since 2019. A part of the pre-health professions track for science majors, pre-medicine exists alongside pre-dental and pre-pharmacy programs in the College of Science, in addition to other pre-health programs.

Students from Oregon and beyond interested in pursuing a career in medicine are drawn to the strong reputation of the pre-med track in the College of Science at OSU, which has an enviable record of preparing successful applicants for medical schools across the country. While not a major, students can declare a transcript-visible pre-medicine option in six College of Science majors: BioHealth Sciences, Biology, Biochemistry and Biophysics, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Chemistry and Microbiology. Outside the College of Science, Kinesiology and Radiation Health Physics majors can also pursue a pre-medicine option. (OSU students in other majors can still follow a premed path, but can’t officially declare it).

In recent years, pre-med science majors have gained admission to coveted medical programs at UCLA, Oregon Health and Science University, Western University, Ohio State University, Brown and Yale among others.

Gathered on the frontlines to battle the COVID-19 crisis, the healthcare workforce is in the spotlight as are other issues such as lack of access to doctors in rural areas and in minority communities as well as the dire shortage of physicians and specialists to tackle future public health crises. A report from the Association of American Medical Colleges projects that the United States will face a shortage of between 54,100 and 139,000 physicians by 2033.

In 2019-2020, a total of 59% of all COS majors and 65.5% of science majors who used the extensive pre-medicine committee services and resources in the College of Science gained admission to medical school. From 2016 to 2019, the total percentage of all of OSU students gaining admission to medical schools with the help of pre-medicine program resources increased steadily from 59.15% to a striking 75.45%. These are impressive figures, especially in the context of national data. According to the Princeton Review, admission to medical school has continually remained fiercely competitive with low acceptance rates and in 2018-19, 41% of applicants were accepted to allopathic (MD) medical schools nationwide.

A personally and academically rewarding pre-med program

Maureen Leong-Kee

OSU College of Science Pre-Med Advisor Maureen Leong-Kee.

What exactly makes the pre-med program in the College highly successful? According to the College’s lead pre-med advisor Maureen Leong-Kee, a number of factors have contributed to the success of the program and pre-med students. The pre-med program has a well-deserved reputation for outstanding advising, student support structures and learning opportunities that extend beyond the classroom.

Five years ago, a major restructuring of pre-med advising in the College was groundbreaking, ensuring that every student with a pre-med focus gained access to individualized advising within their own program. Now the pre-med program offers student-specific advising in almost every science major, which include biology, biohealth sciences, microbiology, chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology and biochemistry and biophysics. “Students are advised by an expert within their major who is also very knowledgeable about the pre-med pathway,” said Leong-Kee. Mathematics and physics majors with a pre-med focus are advised by faculty within the College’s pre-med advising team.

Rigorous core prerequisites and upper-level science courses give students in-depth knowledge and a strong foundation in their science major as well as a broad exposure to biomedical science. This prepares them very well for the MCAT (The Medical College Admission Test) and even for a successful academic career in medical school. Courses range from contemporary and cutting-edge science topics in immunology and virology to advanced molecular genetics.

Biology graduate Ashley Victor (’19), now a second-year medical student at Oregon Health and Science University, discovered that the biochemistry series and courses in vertebrate biology and introductory physics had significant overlap and applicability to her medical school pursuits, giving her a strong foundation to perform well in the MCAT.

“Science classes in my first three years at OSU proved highly useful. I took classes in genetics, biochemistry, ecology and evolution and just enjoyed learning everything,” said Victor.

A comprehensive, well-rounded education based in sciences and the humanities is a vital part of getting into medical school. In addition to science courses, science majors can also study for a Certificate in Medical Humanities at OSU, which immerses them in a broad range of medical issues from global public health to the art of healing and biomedical ethics. “Our pre-med students take lots of interesting and relevant upper-level science courses, but we also encourage them to get a background in social science, behavioral science and public health to expand their knowledge for medical school,” said Leong-Kee.

The College pre-med program has several other attributes that result in meaningful educational experiences for future doctors and scientists. These resources complement a very well-developed and successful study abroad program and undergraduate research opportunities, as well as scholarships to support undergraduate research:

The pre-med orientation seminar, open to all students at OSU, introduces students to pathways to a career in medicine and diverse ways of connecting with the community to enhance their educational experiences. Students have the opportunity to hear from recent graduates, alumni physicians from diverse backgrounds and area physicians.

In addition to student-specific academic advising, pre-med students receive extensive guidance through the Application Seminar Series and workshops on writing a strong personal statement, as well as timely and comprehensive breakdown of important dates, timelines, guidelines, requirements and strategies to help them succeed in the medical school application process.

While the pandemic and remote work have affected the Medical Preceptorship Program, almost every other aspect of the pre-med journey, including workshops and seminars, has made a successful online transition. The Preceptorship Program, set to resume in fall 2021, partners with Samaritan Hospital and Corvallis Clinic to offer pre-med students valuable shadowing experiences with local physicians and a first-hand look at the clinical environment.

Making medical school possible for all talented students

Amanda Gamboa

Biology Honors graduate Amanda Gamboa

Students attest that the College pre-med program supports a medical school aspirant’s unique abilities and interests. It encourages outside-the-box thinking, helping OSU students stand out from other medical school applicants.

Amanda Gamboa (’20), a biology Honors graduate, says that a broad array of resources and opportunities helped her prepare for medical school and there is a misconception “that all experiences must be related to the medical field.” Gamboa, a first-generation student from Los Angeles, has gained admission to medical school in the West Coast and is waiting to hear from several other institutions where she interviewed before making a decision.

“While it is important to display your knowledge of medicine and what you are getting yourself into, some of my most important experiences are not related to the medical field and have enhanced my social competency, ability to work under pressure and understanding of the evolving nature of today’s society,” said Gamboa.

She deftly combined academics with research, volunteer and outreach activities. Gamboa was an undergraduate researcher at an OSU skeletal biology lab investigating the effect of gene manipulation and spaceflight on bones for her Senior Honors thesis, in addition to being one out of four students selected nationally for a Health Sciences Orthopedic Research Internship at the University of Tennessee.

In addition to her work as a medical scribe at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis, several other leadership and mentoring activities at OSU helped Gamboa broaden her horizons and strengthen her resume for medical school. She was a tutor at LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation), a volunteer in Nepal as a member of OSU’s Building Homes and Hope Program and a peer mentor in the OSU STEM Leaders Program.

Gamboa credits her professors and the pre-med advising team in the College for helping her achieve important academic milestones, and to adopt effective time management strategies that enabled her to focus on MCAT preparation and even find time to destress with friends.

“I definitely do not think I would have been as organized if it wasn’t for pre-med advisors like Maureen (Leong-Kee). Some of the faculty members I developed close personal relationships with provided letters of recommendation for me and always supported me in personal, professional, and academic endeavors,” said Gamboa. “Overall, Oregon State University did an exemplary job in guiding me through the pre-med track and preparing me for medical school.”

Ben Hauser

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology alumnus Benjamin Hauser ('20)

The pre-med track in the College of Science also equips students to make the most of a gap year between graduation and medical school. Benjamin Hauser (’20), a biochemistry and molecular biology graduate, joined the National Institutes of Health in Maryland for a post-baccalaureate fellowship. He does research pertaining to childhood growth and development at NIH.

A transfer student from Linn Benton Community College, Hauser worked summer jobs repairing streets and working graveyard shifts for the UPS. He spent two years at OSU during which, with the help of supportive pre-med advisors and professors, he studied in 11 biochemistry courses and engaged in substantive research.

“The NIH is one of the world's leading centers of biomedical research and being a member of this organization is humbling. For example, Dr. Fauci walked by me in a hallway the other day on my way into my lab in the Clinical Center,” said Hauser. “Working at the NIH is not an opportunity I ever really envisioned for myself, and I have Oregon State and the Biochemistry department to thank for setting me up for this. With their support, I made the transition from a community college student with only blue-collar work experience to someone who will be pursuing a career as a physician-scientist.” Hauser is also training with the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute to become an EMT and will be applying to medical schools this year.

Among others, Hauser is grateful for the support of his biochemistry pre-med advisor Kari Van Zee. “She inspired me to switch my major to biochemistry which has prepared me for a career in research and medicine. I have been very grateful for her mentorship and support."

As a pre-med student, Hauser got opportunities to work at OSU’s Disability Access Services, served in a motor skills fitness program for children with special needs and shadowed neonatologists at OHSU. He was also a research assistant for the OSU TRACE COVID-19 public health project. Hauser conducted research on the infant digestive system in an OSU lab which led him to co-author multiple publications, and took part in a summer research internship at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (New York).